Sure I laughed. I laughed when Tinker Bell is electrocuted, and when Neil Patrick Harris’s Masterpiece Theater-like chair somehow attacks him. But, after two hours watching an implausible pile-up of mishaps, mayhem and actor injuries, I found “Peter Pan Goes Wrong” an oddly dispiriting experience.
I suppose it was unrealistic to hope for something more than just the theater comedy equivalent of a demolition derby. After all, these practiced professionals have been extracting silly laughs from pretend amateur gaffes for fifteen years.
In 2008, a group of recent graduates from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art started improvising together as the Mischief Theater comedy troupe, performing at various Fringe festivals. They soon created a scripted play, eventually entitled “The Play That Goes Wrong,” about a British murder mystery as performed incompetently by a made-up amateur theatrical company they called the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society. The Mischief professionals proved so adept at pretending to be bumbling, fumbling amateurs that they have gained an international following and developed a franchise: “The Play That Goes Wrong” was an improbable Broadway hit six years ago, winning a Tony for Best Scenic Design (for a set that collapsed spectacularly), and is currently running Off-Broadway and in London’s West End. “Magic Goes Wrong” debuted in England in 2019, the same year that “The Goes Wrong Show” started on the BBC. “Peter Pan Goes Wrong” has opened on Broadway a decade after its premiere in London and extensive touring.
When I saw “The Play That Goes Wrong” six years ago, it struck me as a silly slapstick backstage farce — The Three Stooges with a plummy British accent – but as my first “Goes Wrong” experience, it also felt fresh, and the Brits, beneath it all, seemed like clever fellows.
Mischief’s second Broadway venture doesn’t wear as well with me. It feels like a formula.
There are many people who might defend “Peter Pan Goes Wrong.” I suspect most of the audience the night I attended had a deeper appreciation for this shallow show than I did, judging from the screeches of laughter that greeted every blunder no matter how minor – the jacket that falls to the floor because the clothing hook is just painted on the door; the yo-yo that rolls on the floor because it’s not attached to the string.
Admittedly, the Brits still seem like clever fellows, most evident in the fake program (several page inserted into the real program.) Mischief’s version of Peter Pan is written by the same trio who put together “The Play That Goes Wrong” — Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields – and, as in the other comedy, they each have given themselves roles to play. Henry Lewis portrays Robert, the co-director, a pirate, and Nana the dog, nursemaid for the Darling family, who keeps on getting stuck in the dog flap and occasionally his dog head becomes detached from the rest of his costume. Jonathan Sayer is Dennis, who portrays little John Darling, but is so incapable of learning his lines that the Cornley crew outfits him with a headset to feed him his lines, which he shouts awkwardly (and occasionally repeats what he hears on the headset that’s not meant to be repeated: ”Dennis speak with feeling for god’s sake. No. No. No. Don’t repeat that you idiot.”) Henry Shields is Chris who is the director (he insists the only director; Robert is only the assistant director, despite his insistence to the contrary), and both George Darling, the well-meaning father (“a little pompous, but with a kind heart,” the narrator tells us) and Captain Hook, the ill-meaning pirate whom we are instructed to boo ( the audience enthusiastically complies.)
Eight other cast members play various Peter Pan characters and Cornley company members, most noticeably Greg Tannahill as the actor who plays Peter Pan, who has the most acrobatically challenging role of flying upside down and into walls; and Nancy Zamit, as the aforementioned Tinker Bell and a multitude of other roles that (running shtick) she has to quick-change from one to the other.
One can argue that the plot is easier to follow than the other “Goes Wrong” because it’s…Peter Pan, and there’s even a narrator — Neal Patrick Harris portrays Francis the storyteller, reading the story of Peter Pan from a huge storybook sitting (when he can) on that rebellious chair, and flicking sparkling fairy dust in the air. Harris, who later also plays a pirate, is in the show only until the end of April, after which they plan to have a series of guest (and presumably celebrity) storytellers.
In addition to the plot of Peter Pan, there are also character arcs for various company members, the stuffy ones getting their comeuppance, the put-upon ones getting a measure of triumph.
So, yes, there is some cleverness, and some structure, in “Peter Pan Goes Wrong” — but buried beneath endless head bonks, pratfalls and electrical short circuits.
Peter Pan Goes Wrong
Ethel Barrymore Theater through July 9, 2023
Running time: Two hours and five minutes, including an intermission
Tickets: $84 – $248
by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields. Based on the play Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie.
Directed by Adam Meggido.
Scenic design by Simon Scullion. Costumes by Roberto Surace. Lighting design by Matthew Haskins. Sound design by Ella Wahlström. Original Music by Richard Baker and Rob Falconer. Wig and makeup design by Tommy Kurzman.
Cast: Chris Leask, Henry Shields, Henry Lewis, Matthew Cavendish, Neil Patrick Harris, Charlie Russell, Jonathan Saye, Nancy Zamit, Bianca Horn, Greg Tannahill, and Ellie Morris.r
Photos by Jeremy Daniels