“Peter Pan Goes Wrong” has two big advantages over its older sister production, “The Play That Goes Wrong.” First, it’s based on J. M. Barrie’s “Peter and Wendy,” and whenever this new show fails to be amusing in its extremely physical parody of a disastrous amateur production of that classic children’s play, there’s always the magic of flying children, Tinkerbell, Captain Hook and a skate-boarding alligator to distract us while the actors repeat jokes for the second or third time with increasingly less positive results. There’s only so many times you can laugh at an actor purposefully giving a bad performance.
Second, and even more important, “Peter Pan Goes Wrong” is something of a snuff play. As far as body counts go on the Broadway stage, among new plays, only Martin McDonagh’s “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” clocked in more real-time “deaths,” although two of those were cats. No animal is “killed” in “Peter Pan Goes Wrong,” but one actor in a dog costume (coauthor Henry Lewis) does get stuck in a doorway and has his head bashed in repeatedly.
After various engagements on the West End and elsewhere in the U.K., “Peter Pan Goes Wrong” opened Wednesday at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre. The authors are Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, who also wrote that previous “Goes Wrong” play, which continues to perform Off Broadway after a long run on Broadway.
But back to the show that would be better titled “Peter Pan Got Snuffed.” Snuff films were a big deal back in the 1970s, although it was never proven if any of those adult films actually offered up the grisly real thing. The “deaths” certainly look real in “Peter Pan Goes Wrong,” and they invariably provoke more gasps than laughs when the actors are crushed, electrocuted or dropped while performing aerial tricks gone awry. Some of these “deaths” might be more accurately described as “near deaths,” and after you’ve witnessed a few of them, it is more the sound of the accident than the sight of it that stuns you out of boredom. Ella Wahlstrom’s sound design repeatedly packs a wallop.
Many of the actors here are veterans of “Peter Pan Goes Wrong” in the U.K. and/or various productions of “The Play That Goes Wrong.” In other words, they have experience at dodging doors and flying planks without really getting injured. The newcomer is guest star Neil Patrick Harris, who performs in the show through the end of April. In the beginning of “Peter Pan Goes Wrong,” Harris plays the role of the narrator, and holding the script, he fulfills the gimmick of all guest stars: to goose ticket sales with as little work as possible.
Always a real trouper, Harris goes further, much further. Yes, he repeats that embarrassing half-naked “Birdman” send-up from his hosting of the Academy Awards in 2015. Much more significant, he is very much a part of this show’s hurricane finale on a turn table while the actors performing “Peter and Wendy” stampede through a revolving number of tacky sets — by Simon Scullion — that force them repeatedly to run across a pirate’s ship, an enchanted forest and the children’s bedroom back in London. As if that weren’t enough, Harris is then hit by an errant chair that sends him flying back onto the turn table. He remains “passed out” there until the curtain call when he stands up and shakes his head before the entire ensemble takes its bow. The way he shakes his head might be part of the gag, but it looks pretty real.
Beyond Harris’ very physical performance and all the staged deaths, the high point of “Peter Pan Goes Wrong” is extremely low tech and of even lower humor. It comes when the Captain Hook (co-author Henry Shields does a very good imitation of John Cleese) has problems removing the cork from a bottle. The moment goes on forever and ends sooner than it should.
Adam Meggido directs the mayhem.