A farce is built on everything going awry. Because the audience knows, to a certain extent what is coming—slamming doors, falling scenery, people pratfalling—the funniest farces often find a way to escalate the mishaps, milking laughs through a willingness to push past expectations to a sort of delirious, even existential, silliness. The quintessential example of this comes not from the theater, but from The Simpsons, which takes the age-old stepping on a rake gag so far beyond what should be funny that it becomes sublime.
The British import, The Play That Goes Wrong, now at the Lyceum Theatre on Broadway, gets much of this right. Created by England’s Mischief Theatre, The Play That Goes Wrong is not as complete a play in terms of creating actual people as Michael Frayn’s classic Noises Off, which was revived on Broadway just last year. As a result, it relies a bit more on cheap laughs than character-based humor that can generate deeper, longer and more satisfying laughs. Still, that’s surely an unfair comparison, like criticizing a new drama for not being as good as Hamlet. Despite its few missteps, anyone who enjoys farce will be smiling, chuckling or laughing the entire evening. (Anyone who finds such slapstick tiresome should know to stay away).
The show, about a disastrous night for an imaginary amateur theatre troupe—The Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society—putting on a what proves to be a terrible play, starts going for laughs before the first line is even delivered: there’s a fake playbill within the actual Playbill, featuring a Who’s Who of the troupe’s cast, a note from the company’s president—who is also the play’s director and the play’s star—and even a fake ad. Meanwhile, there’s some pre-show bits on stage as the stage manager and light/sound operator desperately and unsuccessfully try to fix the poorly designed set.
The show formally opens with the director/star, Chris Bean, introducing himself, the troupe and the play, The Murder at Haversham Manor; he’s a nervous and apologetic man and Henry Shields (who co-wrote the play with co-stars Henry Lewis and Jonathan Sayer) conveys this in a way reminiscent of Michael Palin’s many put-upon characters in Monty Python’s Flying Circus. However, during the show itself, Bean plays Inspector Carter, called to investigate the titular murder. As the set crumbles, the wrong props appear—with paint thinner quite painfully standing in for a fake glass of scotch—and one character after another is knocked unconscious, Shields brilliantly channels John Cleese’s perpetually aggrieved Basil Fawlty, generating some of the show’s funniest moments.
Not all the choices are so inspired. The playwrights note that the title makes clear that this is about a play that goes wrong, not one that is done badly and further state that the actors in the play “are not bad actors but the victims of unfortunate circumstance.” While Shield’s Bean fits that description, the cast is filled with bad actors. Dave Hearn is charming as Max, the novice who sells out at the first taste of audience applause, making his gestures increasingly flamboyant and stopping to take bows mid-scene (although this wears a bit thin by the end). But Charlie Russell plays Sandra, who plays Florence the fiance of the murder victim, so broadly that it comes across as a ham-handed parody of community theater that parodies her own intentions… and thus is a distraction. It’s a relief when Sandra is knocked unconscious and replaced by Annie, the stage manager, carrying a script. At the press performance, Annie was winningly played by understudy Bryony Corrigan, who goes from tentative to enthusiastic without losing her character’s essence. (Annie is eventually knocked out as well, to be replaced as Florence by a reluctant Trevor, the light and sound operator, and, after he is flattened by falling scenery, a grandfather clock becomes a stand-in for the fiance.)
The show’s willingness to up the ante on the mishaps and violence that befalls the characters, and to believe there’s no such thing as one too many spit takes, falling pieces of scenery, or painful pratfalls keeps the pace humming and the audience laughing. It culminates in a battle royale between the battered Sandra and Annie over who will finish out the play as Florence, with their vicious attacks drowning out the crucial plot machinations of the woeful and misbegotten play.
But the strongest moments are the ones that rely instead on a clever twist in the writing to undermine the actors. In one scene, the actor playing the butler accidentally says the wrong line, sending the cast scrambling—Shields as Bean, jumps in with the line that follows the incorrect line… which forces them all back to the beginning of the scene. Stuck in a horrifying loop and forced to drink more paint thinner (and, of course, spit it in someone else’s face), the cast relives the scene again and again until the butler finally stumbles into the right line and sets them free.
In another scene, Sandra as Florence comes in a line to early but Chris Bean as Inspector Carter refuses to go with it and recites his lines as written, leading to a brilliant bit of verbal slapstick:
SANDRA: When you love someone there’s no such thing as rushing, Inspector.
CHRIS: Did you ever think you were rushing into this marriage?
SANDRA: Why wouldn’t I love him?
CHRIS: Did you love him, then?
SANDRA: How could anyone have benefited?
CHRIS: Can you think of anyone who might have benefited from your fiancé’s death?
CHRIS: Not even Cecil?
SANDRA: I wasn’t having an affair. Don’t raise your voice to me, Inspector!
CHRIS: YOU WERE HAVING AN AFFAIR!
It is not Hamlet and it may not even be Noises Off, but we live in troubled times and sometimes two hours of well-constructed silliness is more than enough.
Starring: Rob Falconer, Dave Hearn, Henry Lewis, Charlie Russell, Jonathan Sayer, Henry Shields, Greg Tannahill and Nancy Zamit
Directed by: Mark Bell
Written by: Henry Lewis, Henry Shields and Jonathan Sayer
Through: September 3 at the affiliateweb_-AFF000006400&BID=5">Lyceum Theatre