One story told about the previews for An American in Paris, tells of a moment when a light bulb broke on stage during the show unintentionally. Somehow, through improvisations and clever cleaning, the broken light bulb was incorporated into the show.
In one showing of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, after the titular car experienced technical issues, delaying the show, the Queen of Bulgaria commanded a guard to answer the ringing telephone, citing the fact that the audience had waited long enough.
Technical issues and mishaps are a normal part of theater. Take Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark for example in order to see the potential for things to fall apart. However, it is a rare incident in which a play bases itself entirely around its mistakes.
The premise of The Play That Goes Wrong is quite self-evident. It is built completely out of errors and mishaps and is something to behold.
The play originated in England, created by Mischief Theatre and winning the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy. Similarly, the company produced Peter Pan Goes Wrong, a retelling gone awry, which was later broadcasted as a BBC Christmas Special.
In previews until April, The Play That Goes Wrong is Mischief Theatre’s first foray onto Broadway.
This comedy of errors, of the actor accidentally laughing or the unexpected breaking of a prop, is one that has more complexity to it than there may appear at first glance. Television shows like “America’s Funniest Home Videos” and YouTube compilations of “fails” are evidence of humanity’s amusement at the misfortune and accidents of others.
One particular “Saturday Night Live” clip went viral because Ryan Gosling could not hold a straight face. However, a deeper look at The Play That Goes Wrong shows more beneath the surface.
The play is not merely a collection of mistakes; there is an underlying plot. The play is portrayed as if it is a play being put on by the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, a drama club known for its low-budget productions.
Every actor plays two parts—the Cornley actor and the character they play in the production of The Murder at Haversham Manor. The production is a murder mystery, one in which the man playing the corpse has not yet made it to the couch when the lights appear.
Humor comes when the body’s hand is stepped on and the living cadaver tries not to shriek out in pain.
The plot is threefold—there are the Cornley actors who just want to put on a good show, the characters in the play attempting to discover the murderer and the mistakes that just keep on coming. The play produces a plot in which only the audience is participating.
Characters pick up the wrong props and improvisation is necessary to imbue the props with a new meaning. A vase becomes a notebook and all the while the audience has this transference in mind.
The timing is brilliant. Lines are spoken in utter precision with gags and physical humor. Forgotten lines are made funnier by the purposefully humorous replacements. Characters get knocked unconscious and are then told to stop getting so hysterical. Every element of the stage is utilized from the bookcases and the doors, to the floors and the pictures on the walls. Everything is precise in this tale of imperfections.
Even with careful timing, this kind of humor is nothing without scale. Mistakes must start small and get more and more outrageous. To go too big and not be able to top or match the gag is to improperly utilize the format.
The Play That Goes Wrong does exactly what is needed to build humor, getting bigger and better throughout. The first act ends with an outstanding form of escalating humor, through speed and intensity, and the play itself is able to maintain scale development.
Intratextuality, or the building off and referencing of the play in itself, is key with the inside jokes and running gags, which bring some of the biggest laughs of the show. The body stuffed inside a clock or the pre-show search for a missing dog all pay off later. Every joke has the potential to come back, which is a crucial part of the narrative.
There is something fantastic in the layered storytelling of The Play That Goes Wrong. There is a satisfying murder mystery, with celebrated convolution. Each actor plays a character acting as a character, and the in-between actors each have unique and humorous personalities that build upon their Haversham Manor characters.
Even with all of this, Mischief Theatre is able to create a wonderfully deft production of mistakes gone right. It is a true piece of art.