By Stanford Friedman
Halfway through the first act of the hilarious off-Broadway staging of The Play That Goes Wrong, an actor who has grown wildly frustrated because of a missing prop turns to the audience and says, “Stop laughing! This isn’t television, I can see you.” The demand, naturally, only makes the audience laugh harder. And that is an impressive feat given that the chuckles had been pouring forth relentlessly from the production’s opening moments and, indeed, carry through to the final madcap meltdown, with the scenery seemingly in a race with the performers to see which will tip over first. If it is cliché to say that a show has non-stop laughs, then this show is cliché in the extreme. If it is pat to say that this play lives up to its title, rarely have a talented crew of actors and technicians so seamlessly joined forces to make a ridiculously wrong piece of theater feel so very right.
The script, by a trio of gents who trained at the London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art, actually has a rather complicated exoskeleton. It is a play within a play, with actors portraying other actors who, in turn, are portraying characters in a murder mystery. It is an Agatha Christie type of an affair where one dead body turns into two, then back into one, then into several, while siblings, friends, a love interest and, of course, the butler, are all scrutinized by an intrepid inspector (a game for anything Matt Harrington). But none of this matters in the least. It is merely an excuse for two hours of well-timed spit takes, killer pratfalls, silly antics by men with serious British accents, pyrotechnics of both the literal and metaphorical variety, purposefully egregious over-acting and death defying moments of scenic design by Tony winner Nigel Hook. Director Matt DiCarlo, either a genius or a fool, pulls it all together with the nerves of a demolition expert handling a bomb with a dozen different triggers.
Beyond the simple joys of a man running face-first into a pole, there are recognizable pleasures to be had for anyone who has ever been in a play, amateur or professional, on stage or in the wings. There are cascading prop failures, sound cues with a mind of their own, and misdelivered dialogue that leads to one scene getting stuck in an endless loop. An ensemble of eight perform the tricky task of bashing each other while making sure their antics are safely executed. Bartley Booz, as the confused thespian, Dennis, has his lines written on his hands but still manages to mispronounce everything as he tries to create a believable butler. Matt Walker, as Max, intentionally steals every scene he is in by making devilish eye contact with the audience, much more concerned with showing off than with actual acting. Ashley Reyes handles the ingénue duties with aplomb, gamely being thrown out the window when not torn between two lovers. Ryan Vincent Anderson and Bianca Horn are two stagehands who get dragged into the action with predictably bruising results while Chris Lanceley and Brent Bateman portray friends with stiff upper lips and quivering legs.
Having ended its successful Broadway run in January, the play has found a happy home at New World Stages, joining fellow transfers Avenue Q and Jersey Boys in the underground complex which originally housed a discount multiplex cinema. This cramped stage feels more in keeping with the ruse that the production is presented by a dysfunctional British drama society. The smaller proscenium makes it seem all the more big-hearted.
The Play That Goes Wrong – By Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields; directed by Matt DiCarlo
WITH: Ryan Vincent Anderson (Trevor), Brent Bateman (Robert), Bartley Booz (Dennis), Matt Harrington (Chris), Bianca Horn (Annie), Chris Lanceley (Jonathan), Ashley Reyes (Sandra), Matt Walker (Max), Damien Brett, Adam Daveline, Simone Policano, and Maggie Weston.
Set design by Nigel Hook, costume design by Roberto Surace, lighting design by Jeremy Cunningham, and sound design by Beth Lake. Whitney M. Keeter, production stage manager. Mischief Theatre Company at New World Stages, Stage 4, 340 West 50th St., 212-239-6200, https://www.broadwaygoeswrong.com. Running time: 2 hours.