Peter Pan Goes Wrong | 2hrs 5mins. One intermission. | Ethel Barrymore Theatre | 243 West 47th Street | 212-239-6200
SPOILER: Peter Pan Goes Wrong exceedingly well. I mean to say, it goes right by going very wrong and avoiding ever going right. Right? I seem to be all topsy-turvy—appropriate when the controlled chaos of Mischief Theatre meets J.M. Barrie’s whimsical childhood fable. Up is down, flopping is flying, and humiliation is glory. Actors swinging from wires crash into wobbly flats. Tinkerbell is electrocuted by her plugged-in tutu. Captain Hook, booed by the audience, screeches “Shut up!”—as if Basil Fawlty had stumbled into a community theater.
I don’t think anyone will mind comparisons to British comedy icons, from Monty Python to Mighty Boosh; they’re inevitable, since Peter Pan Goes Wrong is pure English humor, stiff upper lips smushed by doors opening right in the face. The concept, first seen on Broadway in The Play That Goes Wrong, is simple and endlessly applicable: the “Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society” puts on a play and—through a perfect storm of technical mishaps, backstage animus, and utter lack of talent—mucks it up. A daffy sort of heroism also creeps in. Despite concussions, falling scenery, and absurd improvised props (drinking a jar of hand sanitizer because the rum bottle’s gone missing), the hapless actors soldier on, demonstrating Bergson’s theory of comedy as humans trapped in mechanical actions.
Mischief has toured this piece for about a decade, so the intricately choreographed slapstick is honed within an inch of its life. Even so, there are plenty of shock laughs, like the three-decker bunk bed that accordions on the Darling kids, and abundant sight gags—the first of which is Neil Patrick Harris gliding on in a rolling chair that becomes the bane of his existence. Harris (in the show until May 7) plays our narrator, Francis, and doubles as a particularly prop-challenged pirate of Hook (Henry Shields). When the action stops dead due to yet another tech screw-up, Harris performs a mind-reading trick for the audience, a rare bit of virtuosity that goes right.
Apart from the iconic Peter Pan and his battles with Hook, there’s another play’s worth of conflict baked into the backstory of the inept actors playing actors playing Peter (Greg Tannahill), Wendy (Charlie Russell), Tinkerbell (Nancy Zamit) and even Nana the Dog (Henry Lewis). Peter is having an affair with Wendy, you see, and their innocent body language starts to acquire an air of horniness. Later, Peter and Tink find themselves struck by Cupid’s bow, and it’s love trouble in Neverland. Parents, no content worries: everything’s PG-13. (Personally, the only thing that would make PPGW funnier would be cursing and raunchy jokes, but hey, I’m a child.)
Lewis, in possession of a booming bass and Falstaffian silhouette, earns laughs simply by getting stuck halfway through a doggie door or, when he’s playing Peter’s shadow, appearing in a black unitard. Never underestimate the hilarity quotient of a fat man in a skintight suit gyrating like a Fosse dancer. Juggling the roles of mother, maid, and fairy, Zamit is an indefatigable delight. As Max, the closest this gang of idiots comes to a hero, the impish Matthew Cavendish mugs constantly for the crowd, smashing the fourth wall and dancing on its debris. Max’s uncle has invested in the production-within-the-production, and when a miscued sound track reveals the contempt the co-directors have for Max, he’s crestfallen. But it’ll turn out okay, with Wendy giving Max a big smooch at the end. Which, since he’s playing Michael Darling, is incest.
Scripted by Lewis, Shields and Jonathan Sayer (who plays a forgetful actor fed his lines through an ill-tuned headset), all this farcical insanity would be impossible without inspired design, masterfully directed by Adam Megiddo. Simon Scullion’s multi-location turntable set collapses magnificently; Roberto Surace’s outfits attain the perfect level of tacky cliché (and rip away nicely on cue); and, finally, lights (Matthew Haskins) and sound (Ella Wahlström) complete the illusion of abject and total mechanical breakdown. You will not find craftier theatrical silliness this season. Not sure I believe in fairies, but groin hits? Definitely.