‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ Broadway Review: JJ Abrams Presents a British Farce With a Thick Slice of Ham

Dropped lines and dropped props are the order of the day as an “amateur” troupe mounts an ill-fated mystery to hilarious effect

The Play That Goes Wrong
Photo: Jeremy Daniel

It’s curious that J.J. Abrams would make his Broadway debut as a producer of a daffy little British trifle with the apt title “The Play That Goes Wrong.” After all, there are no aliens or spaceships or otherwordly island conspiracies or even Spielbergian little boys with ’80s fixations.

Instead, what we have is an old-fashioned comic farce in which the decidedly amateur (and amateurish) Cornley University Drama Society mounts an ill-fated production of a musty 1920s drawing-room mystery called “The Murder at Haversham Manor.”

Dropped lines and dropped props are the order of the day, and the players — who include co-writers Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayers, and Henry Shields — miss their marks with broad comic precision.

It’s a bit like panto for grown-ups, with the added bonus of an ingeniously designed set (by Nigel Hook) whose shabbiness becomes more pronounced over time until it threatens to collapse altogether by the final curtain.

The cast, which began performing the show four years ago at Scotland’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival as part of the Mischief Theatre troupe, cleverly explores a wide range of bad acting: There’s David Hearn’s overly gesticulating, vainglorious brother of the murder victim, who responds to audience reactions with even more mugging; Charlie Russell’s awkward ingnue, given to vogue-like poses and taking her character’s hysterical “episodes” far too literally; and Sayer’s malaprop-spouting butler, who mispronounces words like “cyanide” and (memorably) “facade” despite not-so-surreptitious checks of the crib-sheet on his palm.

And then there’s Nancy Zemit’s harried stage manager, who steps in for the ingenue after she’s knocked out cold by a wayward piece of the set and develops a bit of an Eve Harrington complex.

Subtlety is not the show’s strong suit — though the script has some witty touches amid all the clockwork-timed (and deliberately mis-timed) slapstick silliness, under Mark Bell’s fine direction.

And like many an amateur production of the sort this show sends up, “The Play That Goes Wrong” sometimes threatens to outstay its welcome and dissipate its considerable charms over time. There is, after all, a fine line between repetition for comic effect and the tedium of beating a punchline until it is good and dead.

But the Broadway production is considerably tighter than the one that played two years ago on London’s West End — where it won an Olivier Award for Best New Comedy.

For much of its two-hour running time, “The Play That Goes Wrong” offers a hilarious tribute to the spirit of the theater and the mantra that the show must go on — served up with a thick slice of ham.