The Play That Goes Wrong, now on Broadway, is an unforgettable comedy wrapped around a totally forgettable drama. What viewers of the former see is a production of the latter — a mystery called The Murder at Haversham Manor. It’s staged by an amateur theatrical company called the Cornley University Drama Society. By stage, I refer to the elevated platform through which the entire effort nearly plunges. By amateur, I mean that the characters portrayed in The Play are jaw-droppingly clueless dramatists. The cast and crew who perform The Murder are light years less talented and nearly as star-crossed as the company that mounted Our American Cousin on a very bad night in April 1865.
The official Playbill for The Play includes a fake program for the imaginary Murder. In it, Drama Society president Chris Bean inadvertently hints at the total lack of preparation that is about to become painfully/delightfully evident.
The cast and I rehearsed for weeks using only the best acting teachings to inspire us. We read that Sanford Meisner once said, “Acting is behaving truthfully,” so we immediately changed all the names in the play to our own names and cut the murder, the manor house setting, and any other element that we had not personally experienced. We then found the piece rather flat, and it only ran at 17 minutes. So we went back to the Meisner book, and we realized the full quote was in fact: “Acting is behaving truthfully . . . under imaginary circumstances.” So we reinstated the cuts, and we were then quickly back on track.
It’s amazing how many things go totally haywire in this show, which is the entire, hysterical point. The cast are virtually acrobatic in terms of how they cope with set malfunctions, prop pratfalls, technical difficulties, and some breathtakingly bad acting. While The Play illustrates just how holistically a cast and crew can wreck a dramatic effort, it takes a cast and crew of exceptional talent to make this meltdown both believable and excruciatingly, belly-achingly hilarious.
This work, a triumph of inspired slapstick, is the Olympics of physical comedy. Some of the antics require a level of athleticism unexpected among this cast, which screams Brighton more than Baywatch. If you enjoyed the dozens of different ways that Kramer (Michael Richards) humorously entered Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment, you will savor this show.
Thanks to playwrights Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields, director Mark Bell, scenic designer Nigel Hook, and a brilliant ensemble cast, The Play That Goes Wrong made me laugh non-stop, pretty much from curtain to curtain. They say that laughter is the best medicine. Regardless, I laughed until I coughed. This show is one of the funniest things I ever have seen on Broadway. I haven’t howled this hard since I watched James Corden dominate One Man, Two Guvnors in 2012, or the world premiere of Mark Twain’s Is He Dead? in 2007, also at the Lyceum Theater, Broadway’s oldest. The Lyceum opened in 1903. In fact, Twain saw a show or two there, back in the day. And why did a new Mark Twain play open at the Lyceum, on Broadway, 97 years after he was dead? That’s another story altogether.
— Deroy Murdock is a Manhattan-based Fox News contributor and a contributing editor of National Review Online.