“I forgot my notebook,” I say to my date as I anxiously rifle through my backpack in my seat in the orchestra at the Lyceum Theatre.
This forgotten prop was certainly not the first lost item of the evening, nor would it be the last. Misplaced props, pratfalls, and forgotten lines are at the center of Mischief Theatre’s production of The Play That Goes Wrong written by company members Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields. The delightfully entertaining farce, transferring from the West End to Broadway, is easily the funniest play I’ve ever seen. At times, I was crying laughing so hard that I was alternately excited by the ab workout the company was giving me and deeply worried that I would have a heart attack.
To give much away about the plot would be a disservice to the play, but the basics: The Cornley University Drama Society have, according to a cheeky program note, ended up presenting their play “The Murder at Haversham Manor” on Broadway due to a clerical error. Before the show has begun, things are already going awry, as company members search the house for a lost dog and a misplaced but deeply important Duran Duran CD. Once the show properly begins, everything that could possibly run amiss, does, and then some. The play’s constant defiance of our expectations is a triumph, and every gag is crafted with the same gravity of a well-made three-act play.
The ensemble is wonderful. They shed their egos and fully throw themselves into the often violent and never-ending intense physical comedy with masterful fervor. As such, those looking for something more than just laughter triggered by doors knocking actors unconscious and intentionally bad stage combat will find in each of the eight actors a gorgeous vulnerability.
In particular, Henry Shields, as Chris Bean, the Society’s director who has taken on the role of the Inspector in the murder mystery, and Jonathan Sayer, as Dennis, a Society actor performing the role of Perkins the Butler, give performances matched in physical deftness by their openhearted committal to their characters. When actress Sandra Wilkinson (Charlie Russell), the only woman in the Society’s cast, playing the so-unsexy-it’s-sexy and mysterious Florence Colleymore, is knocked out by a flying door, the stage manager Annie (Nancy Zamit), hilariously skittish, has to fill in last minute while continuing to carry out her managerial duties.
The actors are not all playing “bad” actors, per se. Some are playing talented young actors (some even terrific actors) who have found themselves in a play that has fallen so out of control. The tension between their talents and commitment pitted against the play around them failing them is what generates the sensitivity in their performances.
The superb design team provides the comedic backbone to the endeavor. Ric Mountjoy’s simple and effective lighting gives the feeling that we are watching a low-budget university production off its hinges””which isn’t an insult. It fits the play’s setting perfectly. Andrew Johnson’s sound design frequently draws laughs from the audience on its own, with misplaced cues and perfectly accidental appearances of contemporary music. Roberto Surace’s costume design never stops being surprising from its pitch perfect period design for the Society actors and detailed t-shirts from previous Society productions, like Cat or Two Sisters. When Annie the stage manager comes out to replace Sandra as Florence, she wears a cobbled together dress over her stage manager uniform of overalls and a toolbelt.
The real hero of the evening was Nigel Hook, whose set design was, in a word, wild. With surprise after surprise, shock after shock, the set pieces, quick changes, and design disasters were relentless. The set design manages to be seamlessly hilarious and in tune with the text and performances. The stage and theatre itself deserve a curtain call at the end of the night, bowing alongside the actors.
The play boasts one significant unintentional misstep. During the second act, one of the Society’s stage technicians, who has stepped into the play after a series of unfortunate events, to play Florence, refuses to kiss another male actor. The cringey homophobia-as-joke was unwelcome and the play did not need to take this kind of backwards turn. This was the only time in the play where the energy in the audience noticeably shifted.
This was one tiny moment in the otherwise damn-near-perfect evening. I am glad I forgot my notebook. Had I had it on me, I don’t know that I would have been able to keep track of my own notes because I spent the entire evening in the strange, beautiful no-man’s-land between giggling and full, open-throated, guttural, screaming laughter.