Broadway Review: “The Play That Goes Wrong”

David Roberts

  • OnStage Chief New York Theatre Critic

During the April 2, 2000 matinee performance of Julie Taymor’s “Green Bird” at the Cort Theatre, a flying wall accidently struck actor Reg. E. Cathey during a set change in the dark. This unexpected interruption resulted in the cancellation of the performance and sent Cathey to the hospital for x-rays. Fortunately, the actor was not seriously hurt and was reported to be joking about the incident afterward. The audience, however, did not respond with laughter but deep concern for the actor. In 2006, during a performance of “Lestat” the sliding walls of Derek McLain’s stunning set failed to move on cue and the scene restarted several times. The audience did not laugh. And there is no need to rehearse the numerous set malfunctions in the early days of “Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark” that resulted in groans from the audience.

On April 10, 2017, “Playbill” featured an article “60 Actors Reveal Their Worst Flubbed Lines and Onstage Mishaps.” The article reviews missed cues, costume malfunctions, going up on lines, shouts from audience members, miss-firing stage guns, and delayed lighting cues. These “mishaps” occur onstage frequently but many of them go unnoticed by the audience: not so in “The Play That Goes Wrong,” currently running on Broadway at the Lyceum Theatre, where things that can go wrong on stage are meant to be seen (and heard) and the audience is encouraged to laugh lustily at things one cannot normally laugh at in the theatre.

Although plenty goes wrong in the Cornley University Drama Society’s “The Murder at Haversham Manor” (the play within the play) nothing goes wrong in the play entitled “The Play That goes Wrong.” Under Mark Bell’s direction, the ensemble cast delivers a high-energy, brilliantly acted farce that celebrates the magic of the theatre by highlighting its foibles – a resplendent conception concocted by writers Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields.

After greeting the audience, Cornley’s director and head of the Drama Society (Chris Bean/Henry Shields) shares, “We are particularly excited to present this play because, for the first time in the society’s history, we’ve managed to find a play that fits the number of society members perfectly. If we’re honest a lack of members has sometimes hampered past productions, such as last year’s Chekov play ... ‘Two Sisters’. Last Christmas’ ‘The Lion and the Wardrobe’ or indeed our summer musical ‘Cat.’”

What follows is the Society’s production of the “who-done-it” murder mystery “The Murder at Haversham Manor” which is boldly reminiscent of the impeccably executed physical comedy of Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, and Jonathan Winters. Pratfalls, broad humor, and exaggerated situations abound, often taking parts of the set with them. Slapstick here is elevated to new levels as those gathered at the Manor try to discern who murdered Charles Haversham (Jonathan Harris/Greg Tannahill) and who – if anyone is having an affair with his fiancé Florence Colleymoore (Sandra Wilkinson/Charlie Russell).

“The Play That Goes Wrong” is a gift to the audience members: two hours to let their guard down and allow themselves to laugh again – just a short time, but time enough to escape all that is going wrong in the political landscape across the country and the globe.

Nigel Hook’s set design is key to the play’s success. Unfortunately, there are problems with sight lines. A sizeable number of audience members sitting audience left saw nothing of the humor surrounding the mantle – or lack thereof. It is not immediately clear how this can be addressed at this point but it is a serious flaw oddly overlooked by the creative team. That said, “The Play That Goes Wrong” is not to be missed. Your brain will thank you for the resplendent release of endorphins and the boost in happiness and wellbeing.


“The Play That Goes Wrong” is produced on Broadway by Kevin McCollum, J.J. Abrams, Kenny Wax, Stage Presence Ltd. and Catherine Schreiber.

“The Play That Goes Wrong” stars the original West End cast featuring Matthew Cavendish, Bryony Corrigan, Rob Falconer, Dave Hearn, Henry Lewis, Charlie Russell, Jonathan Sayer, Henry Shields, Greg Tannahill and Nancy Zamit (the role of Annie was played by Bryony Corrigan at the Thursday. April 6th 7:00 p.m. performance).

“The Play That Goes Wrong” is directed by Mark Bell, featuring set design by Nigel Hook, lighting design by Ric Mountjoy, sound design by Andy Johnson and costume design by Roberto Surace. Production photos by Jeremy Daniel.

“The Play That Goes Wrong” runs at the Lyceum Theatre (146 West 45th Street, between Broadway and 6th Avenue). For further information including performance schedule and to purchase tickets, please visit the play’s official website at Running time is 2 hours, including one intermission. Photo: Jonathan Sayer, Greg Tannahill, Henry Lewis, Dave Hearn, and Charlie Russell. Credit: Jeremy Daniel