The Play That Goes Wrong Gets It Right

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The show is a play within a play, with cast members staging a murder-mystery plagued with plenty of mayhem. From left: Jonathan Sayer, Greg Tannahill, Henry Lewis, Dave Hearn and Charlie Russell (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

No one likes experiencing disaster, but there is something that draws us to watching calamity unfold on the stage. And that’s exactly what happens in The Play That Goes Wrong (PTGW), the wonderfully over-the-top show that brings side-splitting comedy to Broadway in a whole new way.

Written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, the play draws inspirations from Michael Green’s book The Art of Coarse Acting, as well as silent comedies and physical theatre. The friends, who all attended the prestigious London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, debut the PTGW at a local pub and fringe theater in 2012 to an audience of 50. Now, the award-winning show is on stages around the world, premiering on Broadway this past April.

“It’s staggering,” said Sayer on the play’s success. “We just thought, ‘let’s write something that will make us laugh and other people laugh.’ Never for a second did we think it would be in all these different countries and languages.”

Henry Shields, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Lewis (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

Part of the show’s appeal is how universal it is. Whether watching Sayer’s character mispronounce cyanide, another member get hit in the face with a door or the well-meaning Shields try to maintain a sense of decorum as the set collapses around him, audience members can’t help but relate to the chaos.

“Everyone from every walk of life understands the idea of embarrassing yourself and wanting the Earth to swallow you up,” he said. “Everyone has sympathy, or direct empathy. You feel like you really know the character.”

And not only can the audience connect with the play’s message, but the jokes are relentless, coming in every 22 seconds by Sayer’s estimation. The PTGW is unlike anything on Broadway, dishing up so many laughs that audience members will leave with cheeks sore from smiling. The Monty Python-esque humor includes plenty of physical gags, including actors getting pulled through windows, fist fighting and spitting out their drinks.

“You have to be really good at something to do it badly,” said Sayer on the show’s physicality. “And it takes a lot of rehearsals and trusting the people you’re working with. Everyone has to be on the same page.”

Dave Hearn and Charlie Russell (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

The show presents its shtick as soon as audiences filter in to the Lyceum Theatre, with actors attempting in vain to make last-minute “fixes” to the stage and milling around the theatre interacting with the audience. As the lights dim and Shields, the show’s host, takes the stage, he presents the production as a whodunit murder-mystery, the Broadway debut of the Cornley University Drama Society.

It’s very quickly revealed that the Drama Society is not ready for its Broadway debut, in fact far from it. Anything that can go wrong, does: cast members forget their lines, miss cues, are knocked unconscious and set fire to the stage—and that’s just in the first hour.

And while the Cornley University Drama Society has some room for improvement, the cast of the PTGW shines with talent, putting on a show that gets the punchline right every time.

Though the original company (including Lewis, Sayer and Shields) gave a final bow on Sept. 17, the all new cast includes Ashley Bryant (Emotional Creature), Clifton Duncan (City Center Encores! Assassins), Mark Evans (Paper Mill Playhouse’s Mary Poppins), Alex Mandell (Hand to God) and Akron Watson (The Color Purple).

The Lyceum Theatre is located at 149 West 45th St., NYC. For more on The Play That Goes Wrong, visit www.theplaythatgoeswrong.com.

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