The Murder at Haversham Manor is a comical caricature of a play that resides inside The Play That Goes Wrong currently running on Broadway. The Play That Goes Wrong, co-written by Mischief Theatre, comes to NYC’s Lyceum Theatre from London’s West End with its original cast intact. The big move brought a big name to the ticket — film director J.J. Abrams is attached to the production, now.
The show was written by three of the actors Henry Lewis, Henry Shields and Jonathan Sayer. The trio honed their skills at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (Lamda) and, according to The New York Times, “learned to cultivate the art of humiliating themselves to make others laugh.” In the UK they took the show from the small pub theatre and Edinburgh Fringe level up to a two-act production successful enough to win the 2015 Olivier for Best New Comedy and launch two “sequels”.
Unfortunately, whatever it was about the humour the British came to love so much in this production didn’t work so well on Broadway. Sure there are tons of laughs — some in the audience were hysterical throughout. But it grows weary before the end of the first act and rather tiresome by the time the curtain rises again. The Play That Goes Wrong is mostly opportunistic, gliding along on cheap laughs. The production elicits laughs through sight gags, physical buffoonery, lapses in literacy and other elements that even break the fourth wall.
For the actors in the “Cornley University Drama Society” who play the characters involved in the Haversham Manor mystery (I’m going to primarily refer to the characters by their names at lower level), the painfulness of the failed production makes their effort tragic (itself played for laughs). But this goes in line with their previous failed adaptations Roald Dahl’s work became ‘James! Where’s Your Peach?’ and their Checkov play became ‘Two Sisters’.
The group’s history was mentioned in an introduction from Chris Bean, head of the drama society and director of the play (within the play). He is the production’s emotional core and most frequently the funniest. As Haversham’s Inspector Carter, Chris (Henry Shields) has such frequent pained expressions that his misery is both affecting and hilarious. In one scene where he looks for a ledger, Carter’s exasperated cries lead to a breaking of the fourth wall as a “member” of the audience informs him what he seeks is under the couch.
Unfortunately, the wall breaks down a couple more times which proved to be a detriment to the show when someone in the audience began to guffaw. Over the course of the first act, Cecil Haversham (Dave Hearn), brother of the deceased, learns if he overacts he can get a better response from the crowd. His exaggerated antics do start to earn more genuine laughter from the audience. But somewhere along the way, Cecil earned a true fan in the audience, someone who (and I can’t see this in the script but it felt staged), began to cheer him on with “whoos” and more resonant laughter than anyone else. Scripted or otherwise, this woman’s laughs were outright obnoxious. Fortunately, she didn’t return for the second act.
The rest of the cast were rather droll. For Thomas Colleymoore (Henry Lewis) that attribute seemed to be his only joke. To be fair, he earned some of the better physical laughs when he attempted to take phone calls from some precarious positions. The female roles were lacking even that attribute, though. Then the two ladies get involved in an overly long “cat fight” (one is wearing a negligee echoing Brooke Ashton in Noises Off, the most comparable play).
The absurdity of substituting an inanimate object for the females in the second act is a specific bit of inspiration. But well before the grandfather clock comes into play, The Play That Goes Wrong has worn out its welcome. The repetitive humor in this farce makes The Play That Goes Wrong more tiresome than winsome.