“Oh, Inspector! I can’t take it anymore!” wails one of the hapless characters, an amateur performer enacting a shambles of a mystery drama, in “The Play That Goes Wrong,” the unutterably silly British farce that has now labored its way onto Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre.
I knew just how the poor woman felt.
This knockabout comedy, in which a troupe of beleaguered but indomitable performers scrambles around the stage, trying to put across a classic English manor house mystery as chaos erupts around them, does not qualify as one of the deadliest nights I’ve spent at a Broadway theater. But with its relentless working of a handful of hoary gags, it amply proved that the law of diminishing returns applies to the mechanics of farce perhaps more than it does to any other theatrical genre.
First seen on London’s fringe, and later a hit in the West End (it won the 2015 Olivier Award for best new comedy), the play has perhaps inevitably leaped across the pond. What succeeds in the West End rarely stays in the West End, after all. But while I would not argue that anything has been lost in the transfer — director Mark Bell and the cast, including authors Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, are London holdovers — what remains to be seen is how large an audience there is in New York for the kind of comedy that the British tend to lap up more greedily than most Americans. (Low farce has never held the stage as consistently here as it has in England.)
The play presents us (winkingly) with a misbegotten performance of a mothball-scented mystery, “The Murder at Haversham Manor,” ostensibly courtesy of the Cornley University Drama Society. Charles Haversham, the lord of the manor, is found dead in the opening scene — although he eventually must slink offstage when the stretcher bearing his corpse collapses — and the old question drives the action: Whodunit?
But as the title indicates — the title of the Broadway show, that is — no sooner have the actors taken the stage than calamity begins to dog their heels. Props go missing, and ludicrously incongruous replacements must be found: No notepad? Hand the good detective a vase, on which he pretends to scribble notes. (Chortle, chortle.) A mantelpiece that figures significantly in the action never did get hammered onto the set, so why not have the stage manager fill its purpose? (Titter, titter.) There is door-slamming aplenty, mostly causing injury, and eventually leading one actor to slump to the floor unconscious. (Cue the guffaws.)
An obvious inspiration for the play is Michael Frayn’s classic onstage-backstage farce “Noises Off,” which employed a rather more elaborate, not to say ingenious, structure to anatomize the similar disintegration of a theatrical production. That comedy, however, took care to establish the actors onstage as differentiated characters with romantic rivalries and simmering feuds, so that as the missed cues and mislaid props piled up, the ensuing mayhem had at least some grounding in psychology.
The characters in “The Play That Goes Wrong” — call it “Noises Off,” lobotomized — have no such dimensions, although there is some meager catfighting between the actress Sandra (Charlie Russell), playing the simpering ingénue who is the deceased’s fiancée, and the stage manager Annie (Nancy Zamit), conscripted to take over her role, deer-in-headlights style and script in hand, when Sandra gets knocked out.
Trying to describe why a comedy strikes you as unfunny is about as fruitless as trying to describe why it had you in stitches. “The Play That Goes Wrong” falls squarely into the category of things that you’ll like if you like that sort of thing. (See: The Three Stooges, performance art involving self-mutilation, cruises aboard megaships.) I can’t say I had to climb over patrons rolling in the aisles as I made my way out of the theater, but duty demands that I report that portions of the audience appeared to find the antics worthy of exercising their diaphragm muscles, even as the authors return to the shallow waters of their comic well repeatedly. (A joke about whiskey being replaced, for no logical reason, with a more toxic brew, causing the actors to sputter and spew, was worn threadbare well before intermission.)
The actors, and the director certainly deserve commendation for the precision of the physical comedy. Nary a pratfall goes amiss, and botched cues are botched with clockwork regularity. The actors also express various gradations of befuddlement, irritation, exasperation and stupefaction with practiced and often sharply funny deadpan humor. As the distracted sound engineer — who inadvertently blasts a bit of Duran Duran across the system at an inopportune moment — Rob Falconer slouches about with bluff bewilderment when he is forced to join the frenzy, and Zamit’s pancake-flat line readings as the stage manager-turned-actress Annie are sometimes priceless. (Then again she also wins the booby prize for most strenuous mugging.)
Nigel Hook‘s set design captures the shortcuts and flimsiness of an economically pinched production with gimcrack genius, too. As floorboards flap up into the actors’ faces, a door disguised as shelves of books (yes, that old gag) malfunctions, and the platform representing the floor of an upstairs study wobbles and sags, the set seems to be working just as hard as the performers.
But eventually the absurd props, tottering scenery and collapsing lighting rigs all but upstage the actors. Long before the red herrings had been sorted out I came to feel that it wasn’t just the play-within-the-play that was going wrong, but the whole exhausting, exhausted conceit.
“The Play That Goes Wrong” opened at the Lyceum Theatre on Sunday, April 2, 2017.
Creative: Written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields; Original Music: Rob Falconer; Directed by Mark Bell; Scenic Design by Nigel Hook; Costume Design by Roberto Surace; Lighting Design by Ric Mountjoy; Sound Design by Andrew Johnson.
Producers: Kevin McCollum, J. J. Abrams, Kenny Wax, Stage Presence Ltd., Catherine Schreiber, Ken Davenport, Double Gemini Productions/deRoy-Brunish, Damian Arnold/TC Beech, Greenleaf Productions/Bard-Roth, Martian Entertainment/Jack Lane/John Yonover, Lucas McMahon and Mischief Theatre.
Cast: Rob Falconer, Dave Hearn, Henry Lewis, Charlie Russell, Jonathan Sayer, Henry Shields, Greg Tannahill, Nancy Zamit.