Extended thru July 23rd! . . .
By Samuel L. Leiter . . .
Funny as much of it is, at least in its first act, I’m afraid that Peter Pan Goes Wrong, which just opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, has a title that sometimes comes a little too close for comfort to the truth. Many when I attended, especially the kids, will not share that opinion, since the laughter generated was not only loud but also continuous over the course of the show’s overlong two-plus hours. Still, this viewer’s laughing gas tank began thinning out sometime before the intermission.
Which is not to dismiss the show’s genius at accomplishing what it sets out to do. Peter Pan Goes Wrong, meticulously directed for maximum mayhem by Adam Meggido, masterfully imagines all the things that can go awry in staging a play as technically complex as JM Barrie’s eponymous masterpiece, bringing them off with remarkable panache. The show, which premiered in London in 2013, is the product of Mischief, the acclaimed British group that also originated the world-famous, more consistently funny, The Play that Goes Wrong, which arrived on Broadway in 2017, and later showed up Off-Broadway, where it’s still going right.
The new play replicates the tongue-in-cheek formula of its terrific predecessor (created by the same team of comic actors, Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields): a group of amateurs, the Cornley Youth Theatre, put on a play during which every imaginable mishap transpires: sight gags incessantly trip over sight gags, and the verbal gaffes never end.
We get ill-memorized lines, mangled ones (even when read off visible cue cards), warped pronunciations, and, to everyone’s dismay, farcically inappropriate, pre-recorded audio passages which unintentionally interrupt the action. (A shout-out to sound designer Ella Wahlstrom!) Dennis (Mr. Sayer), the Cornley actor playing John, one of the play’s children—all played by adults— doesn’t know his lines so he wears a highly obvious headset to receive them electronically; he’s too stupid, however, to discriminate between the script and what he’s being told to do, which he foolishly repeats.
Whereas The Play that Goes Wrong created its comical turmoil within an Agatha Christie-type mystery, Peter Pan Goes Wrong generates havoc with an adaptation of Barrie’s Edwardian classic about Wendy (Charlie Russell), Michael (Matthew Cavendish), and John, the children of a London family, the Darlings. Seduced by Peter (Greg Tannahill), the mischievous, flying boy who never grew up, the children take off with him from their comfy bedroom to Neverland. There they undergo adventures with his followers, the Lost Boys, the hook-handed pirate Captain Hook (Henry Shields, doubling as Mr. Darling) and his shipmates, and a crocodile named Nadia (Mr. Cavendish), who swallowed a ticking clock and—like the actor playing him—eventually becomes an audience favorite. (There’s no Tiger Lily or any Indians involved.)
Naturally, a Peter Pan play includes lots of flying around on wires, which, you can imagine, becomes the source of numerous midair screw-ups. Peter, and the overworked, unfortunate stage manager (Chris Leask) who takes over when Peter’s actor is hurt, flit up, down, all around, going out of control in every conceivable direction, never failing to crash into the scenery or end up dangling, heels over head. These are dangerous stunts carried out with impressive acrobatic finesse by Messrs. Tannahill and Leask.
Tinker Bell, cast deliciously against familiar type with Nancy Zamit who, dressed in a winged, blue-sequined onesie (a terrific contribution from designer Robert Surace) attached to a lengthy power cord, never flies. However, her electrified costume blows the power, killing her, so that—as per the beloved tradition that asks if you believe in fairies—the youngsters (and their guardians) in the house can be asked to pray for her recovery.
Props constantly misbehave or collapse (keep your eye on that triple-decker bunk bed); Nana, the huge dog (Henry Lewis), gets stuck in a door’s animal flap; people’s clothes fly off unexpectedly; actors making quick changes get exposed midway; characters are discovered in compromising situations, and so on, ad infinitum.
Simon Scullion’s enormously clever set, marvelously lit by Matthew Haskins, is squeezed between two side panels to emphasize its smallness. It depicts scenes in the bedroom, on the pirate ship, in the Neverland forest (where the trees are alive), and in the sea (watch for the blonde mermaids on roller skates). Placed on a turntable, it allows two tour de force scenes of chaotic action as the actors race through and over one scenic locale after the other as the disk keeps rotating, each turn bringing some new surprise into view.
The Cornley’s adaptation progresses with the assistance of a narrator, Francis Beaumont (guest star Neil Patrick Harris through April 30, presumably to be followed by the role’s originator, Harry Kershaw, and by other guests during the run). Mr. Harris, who gets a big hand when he appears on his reader’s throne—the source of endless bits of business—is the only non-English-accented player, but he fits in well, sprinkling fairy dust at every opportunity, and also playing Cecco, one of the foolish pirates. He gets several ripe opportunities for vigorous shtick, carrying off his duties with considerable physical skill.
This being a show with lots of meta opportunities (as when Capt. Hook tells the kids booing him to shut up! “Have you no respect for Broadway!?”), Mr. Harris executes one of Act Two’s more laugh-worthy bits when he engages a child in the audience in a mentalist trick. At the matinee I attended, an eccentric little boy on the aisle across from me, perhaps five or six, tossed off some ripostes as funny as anything on stage.
The chief problem with Peter Pan Goes Wrong is that the nonstop stream of catastrophes eventually loses interest because the play-within-the-play’s stakes seem practically nonexistent. No one seems overly concerned that the performance is literally falling apart. Rather than it being a show in which the actors struggle to overcome their never-ending accidents, it becomes one about the accidents themselves, as we wonder how long the ball can remain in the air, not just to demonstrate the show’s conceptual and technical abilities, but to garner laughs from them as well.
And despite being specialists at this kind of thing, the company never achieves the level of aloof sangfroid in the face of bedlam that helped The Play That Goes Wrong succeed. Straight as their faces are, they sometimes seem a bit more aware that they’re being amusing than is helpful in such circumstances, where utter seriousness is required. In this regard, Act One comes close to achieving the show’s goals; from then to the final curtain, however, it simply marks time in a demonstration of undoubted ingenuity but—with occasional exceptions—of diminishing humor.
Peter Pan Goes Wrong—which, by the way, introduces a few risqué touches—will appeal mainly to children, or adults who’ve never outgrown their childhood selves. My own inner child was happy for most of Act One, but for Act Two he was hard to find. Maybe he simply doesn’t believe in fairies.
Peter Pan Goes Wrong. Open Run at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre (243 West 47th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue). www.pangoeswrongbway.com
Photos: Jeremy Daniel
Cover Photo Caption: Henry Shields, Ellie Morris, Henry Lewis, Charlie Russell, Jonathan Sayer, Neil Patrick Harris and Matthew Cavendish