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New York City Theater

"The Play That Goes Wrong"
Lyceum Theater

Uncle! Uncle! I give up!

Maybe it’s a matter of being finally worn down. The first act of “The Play That Goes Wrong,” the British slapstick comedy that has tripped in its journey from the West End to Broadway, eventually takes a breath and is all the funnier for it. By the second act, resistance is dead and, while you’re not exactly slapping your knee, you crack a smile here, a laugh there.

Unlike “Noises Off,” which it resembles, this time we’re not drawn into separate plots that add to the mayhem. But the premise is similar: a series of mishaps that upend the performance of some idiotic Agatha Christie mystery. (No, the butler didn’t do it.)

This time, the evening consists almost entirely of pratfalls. The characters have no back stories, merely a desire to appear on stage. The main – really, the only -- conflict is the rivalry for the spotlight between two women: the actress in the original cast vs. a stage manager who, script in hand, fills in for said actress after she’s met with several incapacitating bashings about.

The fictional premise is the presentation of a play by one Susie H. K. Brideswell. Called “The Murder at Haversham Manor,” it’s acted by players from the Cornley University Drama Society, directed by Chris Bean, who’s also a performer and is responsible for most of the credits, from designer to dialect coach. The play-within-the-play is supposedly being produced by a company so impoverished for talent that it has been forced to present “Two Sisters,” “The Lion and the Wardrobe” and “Cat.”

Everything that could go wrong, does. Doors stick, scenery collapses, actors miss cues, stagehands get caught on stage, a “corpse” comes to life. Life and limb are in constant jeopardy, forcing the performers to clutch onto whatever’s handy to stay their demise. Nigel Hook’s set is as dangerous as the collapsing house that plagued Buster Keaton in “Steamboat Bill, Jr.”

Under Mark Bell’s appropriately frenetic direction, the farce, written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, all of whom appear in the cast, the Mischief Theater production won the Olivier Award for best comedy and features a game cast. Significantly, the funniest character is played by the underplaying Dave Hearn. Lapping up the spotlight, Hearn‘s Max Bennett wallows in enjoyment whenever the audience shows its appreciation. He’s the amateur actor par excellence and very funny.

Although “”The Play That Goes Wrong” is the play that goes on too long, it has its jolly moments. It also has, judging by the audience reaction, lots of devoted supporters.

--David A Rosenberg
April 13, 2017

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