The Play That Goes Wrong, Broadway’s latest Olivier Award-winning West End import, actually starts before its official show time — setting the tone for an immersive, hilarious evening the minute you set foot in the Lyceum Theatre.
The show is a play-within-a-play, where we’re ostensibly watching The Cornley University Drama Society’s production of The Murder at Haversham Manor. As patrons settle into the theater, Drama Society members breeze about in a frantic dash to get everything in order. “Has anyone seen a little brown and white dog?” the ponytailed lighting and sound operator, Trevor (Rob Falconer), asks individual audience members at their seats. Across the aisle, a high-strung, mustachioed Brit (Henry Shields) admonishes the crowd for its sloppy attire; onstage, panic-stricken stage manager Annie (Nancy Zamit) tries to fix the defective set while hiding her face behind a notebook.
As far as plot goes, the (real) show’s title is a perfect summary: Pretty much everything you can imagine — and plenty of things you can’t — goes awry, from botched pronunciations to life threatening set malfunctions. (The pseudo-amateur set, designed by Nigel Hook, is like a magic show: I was dying to know how the perfectly timed bits of self-destruction worked, but at the same time, content to suspend disbelief and imagine the whole performance as inexplicably cursed.)
Of course, slapstick, door-slammed-in-face humor is only funny on its own for so long, and the writer-actors (Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Shields) seem to know it. The real brilliance of The Play That Goes Wrong is the series of unspoken stories happening amongst the Drama Society members, like when shy Annie, forced into an onstage role after another actor is injured, gradually warms to (and becomes obsessed with) the spotlight, or the way dim-witted Max Bennett (Dave Hearn) breaks into a goofy grin every time he gets a positive response from the audience, and then strives to replicate it. Even under an extra layer of character, Play’s actors manage to convey compelling personalities and neuroses for their Cornley players, all while making complicated choreography look like random chaos.
Admittedly, two hours of nonstop pandemonium gets exhausting, and even with the intriguing character development (or degeneration), the curtain comes as a bit of a relief. (You can only cringe so many times before getting a cramp.) But on the whole, The Play That Goes Wrong is just right: A ridiculously entertaining disaster. B+