Like certain sanctified Hollywood creation myths — pretty girl, soda fountain, famous director — the one about going out a chorus girl and coming back a star retains a surefire audience appeal. Something like that has grown up around J.J. Abrams. A backstage encounter at Hamilton leads to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s commission to compose “Jabba Flow” for the bar scene in Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens. In London, Abrams sees The Play That Goes Wrong, and soon enough, a ramshackle comedy born as a pub frolic is opening on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre with a producing credit to Abrams worth a fortune in publicity.
It’s funny. Sometimes it’s very, very funny, though you have to keep the faith through an almost appallingly tin-eared and flat-footed first act to get to the good stuff, which includes collapsing scenery, man-handled bodies alive and presumed dead, immoderate consumption of paint thinner and the consequent spit-takes, a body in the grandfather clock and cameos by Duran Duran. Easy, if affectionate, laughs at the expense of amateur thespians is at least as old as Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals and evergreen as Michael Frayn’s Noises Off — both of which deserve a royalty from this elaborate piffle from a group aptly called Mischief Theatre, founded a decade ago by graduates of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.
As the fake program-within-the-program informs us, we are in attendance at “The Cornley University Drama Society” presentation of “The Murder At Haversham Manor.” Who killed Charles Haversham (Greg Tannahill, as gifted a comedic corpse as you are likely ever to encounter)? And on the very night, no less, of his engagement soirée? Was it his flapper fiancée Sandra (busty, I think, Charlie Russell)? His brother Cecil (Dave Hearn, the group’s John Cleese, and that’s meant as high praise), who’s been bonking Sandra on the side? Perhaps the high-volume butler Perkins (high-volume actor Jonathan Sayer) or the affable Robert (Henry Lewis, the soft-boiled comforting presence)? Inspector Carter (Henry Shields, earnestness personified) will get to the bottom of things. Or probably not.
Two additional characters are required to fully gum up the works: Trevor (Rob Falconer, perfect), the none-too-sharp lighting man with an affection for the above-cited pop band and an inconvenient memory lapse where the live status of his head mic is concerned. And Annie (Nancy Zamit, who persists), the shy stage manager who goes all Eve Harrington when opportunity strikes. Of course, Nigel Hook’s brilliant self-destructing set is a character in its own right, and there are jauntily italicized costumes from Roberto Surace and finely calibrated lighting by Ric Mountjoy.
An overabundance of non-sensical sight gags, slow burns, pratfalls, missed cues, wink-winks and the like dull the viewer’s senses and drag out a sophomoric sketch that would be sharper and funnier at an intermissionless 80 minutes. On the other hand, staged with more commitment than panache by Mark Bell, The Play That Goes Wrong aspires to no higher goal than escapism untainted by North Korea, Trump, Putin, the opening of the baseball season, Neil Gorsuch, and possibly striking writers. As George W. Bush said, mission accomplished.