WHAT “The Play That Goes Wrong”
WHERE Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St.
INFO $30-$139; 212-239-6200; broadwaygoeswrong.com
BOTTOM LINE Part “Noises Off,” part Monty Python, part really stupid.
How many times must characters get smashed in the head with doors and other wooden planks before, I admit it, even the most farce-averse among us gets worn down enough to love it? Is there a statistic that indicates how many times actors — pretending to drink paint thinner while pretending to believe it’s whiskey — can spray-spit into the air before the old-time comic routine starts seeming fresh and funny?
“The Play That Goes Wrong,” the winner of London’s Olivier for best comedy, finds the line that separates the annoying and stupid from the I-can’t-believe-I’m-laughing-at-this brilliance. And when the company aptly called the Mischief Theatre hits that line, which it does over and over, resistance is ultimately futile.
The title says it all, at least about the plot. And yes, if you think the concept sounds like the one for Michael Frayn’s classic theater farce, “Noises Off,” you are right. This, too, is a play-within-a-play about actors stuck onstage when everything that can goes awry.
The difference here is that these Pythonesque characters aren’t even supposed to be semiprofessional actors. They belong to the terrible Cornley University Drama Society and are attempting a ’20s-style thriller called “The Murder at Haversham Manor.” We first see the company — including the real-life playwrights Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields — scurrying around decorating the flimsy English-manor set (ingeniously and perilously put together by Nigel Hook). The would-be director — played with faux-dignity by Shields — explains we are about to see his “die-rector deboo.” He introduces himself while searching for his spotlight, which seems unbearably coy.
But wait. Although Mark Bell is the real director, he should get a special Tony for best choreography in a nonmusical. The physical comedy demands stopwatch precision to make the cumulative antics, not just pratfalls and spit-takes, work without hurting the real actors.
These include Shields as the inspector; Jonathan Harris as the corpse whose hand keeps getting stepped on; his fiancee (Charlie Russell) with the inept flapper wiggle; her overprotective brother (Lewis); her secret love (Dave Hearn), who enjoys the audience far too much; the sound operator (Rob Falconer), who enjoys Duran Duran far too much; and the butler (Sayer), who mangles words he reads off his hand.
There is also a missing dog named Winston, who, though invisible, drags the gardener around on a chain leash. Hanging above the fireplace with the cardboard flames is a portrait of the spaniel. I’d like to believe he is rolling his eyes.