“The Play That Goes Wrong” is the London-to-Broadway-to-both-off-Broadway-and-Tour hit that, well, the title pretty much says it. It sports probably the clearest, most unambiguous title this side of “Cats.”
“Cats” is a musical about, well, cats.
“The Play That Goes Wrong” is a play about a play that goes wrong.
There’s not much beyond that and, for the most part, that’s enough.
The play-within-a-play is a standard-issue, British murder-mystery-in-a-mansion filled with stock characters who have no more depth than those in a game of Clue. In the exterior play, the actors and all-too-visible stage hands tasked with trying to pull it off aren’t much more complex.
The laughs start before a word is even spoken. While audience members are still taking selfies with their programs and figuring out where to drape their coats, actors playing stagehands are at work on the dealing with an errant door, a broken mantelpiece and more.
With the tone set, the play-within-the-play is introduced and the laughs are as strong and consistent as those in any show I’ve seen in a long time.
I won’t go deeper into the plot because one shouldn’t dive into the shallow end of a pool. Besides, giving away specifics would drain some of the fun. Suffice it to say that if something can break in “TPTGW,” it will.
If “TPTDW” sounds a little familiar, you may be confusing it with “Noises Off.” That’s understandable. Anyone who has seen “Noises Off” (and I sincerely hope it was in a strong production) has experienced the foibles of actors trying to survive theatrical disasters.
While neither takes is meant to be taken seriously, there are differences. “Noises Off” cares about the relationships between the characters while “TPTDW” is more concerned with each gag than with the overall structure of the show. “Does it make sense?,” even within this crazy world, isn’t a question any of the creative team seems to have asked. Why, for instance, was the dog portrait hung above the mantle in the first place? Did the backstage crew not even hear the play during rehearsals? And isn’t anyone concerned enough to stop the show when violence breaks out between two of the performers? (Well, one and…nevermind).
If you want to pull a message out of it, “TPTDW” is about tenacity. It’s about trying to figure out how to deal with the crap that the world throws at you. About how to move forward even when the odds are stacked against you…and getting worse by the minute.
If you don’t want to pull a message out of it, just think of “TPTDW” as the Cirque du Soleil of theater comedy.
Like Cirque, it’s an experience that every theatergoer should have at least once. It features remarkable physical feats. It creates its own self-contained world. It’s populated by clowns who make a quick impression early.
And if, by the end, it gets a little numbing, it’s easy to forgive.
Seriously, when was the last time you consistently laughed out loud at a touring Broadway production?
“The Play That Goes Wrong” runs through March 1 at Clowes Memorial Hall courtesy of the Broadway in Indianapolis series. Next stops: Norfolks, VA; Maryville, TN; Wilmington, DE; and Milwaukee, WI. If you miss it in Indy, you’ll find it playing one-nighters in Evansville, IN, and Springfield, IL, in May.