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‘The Play That Goes Wrong’

Daniel Dunaief

By Daniel Dunaief

What is it about “The Play That Goes Wrong” that is just so right for so many people, including me?

My wife and I recently went to this farcical show, where my wife informed me that she, the couple attending the performance with us, and just about everyone around us could tell how much I enjoyed the experience. 

In case you haven’t heard about it and can’t figure it out from the title, “The Play That Goes Wrong” is an absurd show where everything goes so wrong — the props, the actors, the staging, the lighting and the music. Indeed, it’s almost challenging to follow the simple murder mystery plot amid gales of laughter, much of it coming from me.

My family has numerous qualities that we have shared from one generation to the next. My late father laughed so hard at the pratfalls and theater-of-the-absurd dialogue of Danny Kaye movies like “The Court Jester” (1955) that I can still picture him gasping for air as he wiped away the tears slaloming down his face, where they joined the muddy sneaker stains, the dirty paw prints and the soda spills on a white carpet that chronicled our active lives.

The current play follows in the footsteps of Kaye, Benny Hill, the Three Stooges and a host of other characters who do anything for a laugh, stepping on rakes that slam into their heads or interacting in nonsensical ways with other actors as a part of a skit. The show makes the sketch comedy of many of today’s late night shows appear pedestrian by comparison. Granted, the plot follows a singular theme and, once completed, can and does create a full length and ridiculous drama.

Now, some people may find the pedestrian antics of the cast too absurd. I agree that the show isn’t for everyone and doesn’t provide life lessons, memorable songs, gritty entertainment or an insightful view of existence.

And yet, it does offer much needed self-parody and perspective on a country thoroughly divided by events in Washington, D.C. The people who run our country seem intent on making their supporters cheer, while their detractors roll their eyes, shake their heads and seek solace from people who share their beliefs.

Fine, but, the actors in a show written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields of the Mischief Theatre Company, seem intent on roping as much of the audience as possible into their shenanigans. 

One of the actors, who plays Cecil Haversham, seems delighted by the presence of the audience. He plays to the crowd so often that he shares in their enthusiasm when he does something well or when the crowd appreciates an ongoing joke.

This intentionally imperfect play isn’t perfectly imperfect, either. Some moments fall flat. The second half of the show, which is shorter than the first, isn’t quite as engaging, entertaining and uproarious.

Knowing the general plot of the story before I attended, I tried to anticipate the wide range of possible intentional stumbles and humorous moments that actors struggling to maneuver through a story might endure. The range of mistakes and blunders exceeded my expectations among numerous welcome and delightful surprises.

A play that delves in the world of funny gaffes takes real work on the part of the writers and the actors. To anyone sick of the political headlines, the conspiracy theories, the name calling, the accusations and counter accusations, this play is a welcome comedic retreat. It’s no wonder it won Best New Comedy at the 2015 Laurence Olivier Awards in London and is now on Broadway.