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Theatre in Review: Peter Pan Goes Wrong (Ethel Barrymore Theatre)

Neil Patrick Harris. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Attention, fans of The Play That Goes Wrong: Peter Pan Goes Wrong has opened at the Barrymore, where it is scheduled to run through July. There; my work is done.

For the uninitiated: The Play That Goes Wrong, an unexpected hit in 2017, is a shameless rip-off of Michael Frayn's Noises Off, minus the wit and brilliant construction, in which an amateur theatre production of a British country house murder mystery spins out of control, ending in multiple wounds and scenery in ruins. A relentless progression of sight gags, absent anything like plot, characters, or point of view, it nevertheless racked up nearly 800 performances before transferring Off Broadway where it remains to this day. Since then, Mischief, the UK-based company behind it, has mastered the techniques of mass production, with similar titles regularly rolling off the assembly line: Magic Goes Wrong, A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong, The Comedy About a Bank Robbery, and now Peter Pan Goes Wrong. Clearly, they won't rest until we have Medea Goes Wrong, Titus Andronicus Goes Wrong, and Uncle Vanya Goes Wrong.

Anyway, it's safe to say that if you laughed your way through The Play That Goes Wrong, as many did, you will almost surely bust a gut at Peter Pan... For one thing, most of the previous show's cast is back, playing the same characters, a term I use in the loosest possible sense. And so standardized is the company's approach that a startling number of the evening's gags have been recycled. For example, The Play That Goes Wrong begins with a preshow talk noting that the company's recent budget woes have led to cut-down productions like Two Sisters, and The Lion and the Wardrobe. In Peter Pan..., we learn that the "Cornley Youth Theatre" has been rescued from a deficit so deep that its previous production was Jack and the Bean.

And so it goes: In TPTGW, a butler serves paint thinner in place of stage whiskey, leading to massive spit takes. In PPGW, someone is forced to down a bottle of hand sanitizer. In TPTGW, that butler has his lines written on his hand, leading to bizarre mispronunciations. In PPGW, the actor playing John Darling has his lines fed to him via headset, a plan that goes awry when he robotically repeats everything he hears, including a backstage marital spat. In TPTGW, the sound board operator accidently replaces crucial cues with snatches of Duran Duran; in PPGW, the action is interrupted frequently by car horns or broadcast backstage conversations in which the director slags the actors. In TPTGW, the actors contend with a misbehaving stage elevator; in PPGW, it's an out-of-control turntable and wonky flying gear. In TPTGW, the leading lady, knocked unconscious, is replaced by a burly female technician. In PPGW, the title character is felled, with various actors vying to step into the role. And, of course, before the final curtain, the stage will be reduced to rubble.

Clearly, these productions have such a fan base -- the audience at the performance I attended was in a panic state throughout -- that the Mischief people can seemingly keep monetizing their formula until doomsday. All I can tell you is that I -- a lover of British comedy down to the Carry On films -- was stirred to laughter only occasionally. Among the cast members, I most enjoyed Jonathan Sayer (who co-wrote the script with co-stars Henry Lewis and Henry Shields), as the hapless John Darling, and Nancy Zamit, who, forced to play Mrs. Darling and the family's maid in the same scene, executes some breathtaking quick changes. She turns up later as Tinker Bell, in a tutu illuminated with fairy lights, leading to a mild case of electrocution. Charlie Russell underplays nicely as the production's Wendy, caught up in a triangle with two of her leading men. Neil Patrick Harris, joining up a limited engagement as the production's narrator and a pirate, has a good time throwing around fairy dust and wrestling with a misbehaving stage wagon.

The design team joins in the prevailing spirit of mayhem. Simon Scullion knows everything about scenery that goes wrong, especially that turntable; he also earns laughs with plunging lighting units and a triple bunk bed that collapses on cue, entombing those who sleep in it. Lighting designer Matthew Haskins has fun with colorful ballyhoos and a couple of well-timed blackouts. Costume designer Roberto Surace runs riot with typical Peter Pan looks, especially a furry outfit for the plus-sized Lewis, cast as the dog Nana. Ella Wahlström's sound design efficiently delivers a battery of voiceover effects.

Indeed, it's possible to admire the sheer technical virtuosity of Adam Meggido's staging without being amused by it. At fifteen minutes, Peter Pan Goes Wrong might be a riot, but more than two hours of this cloying silliness is more than my constitution can take. It goes wrong, all right, but not in the way its creators intended. But if this is your brand of Mischief, you know what to do. --David Barbour

(24 April 2023)

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