From pratfalls, missed entrances, and flubbed lines to misplaced props and broken set pieces, there’s nothing that Jonathan Sayer loves more than when a theatrical enterprise devolves into a moment of seeming disaster.
Sayer, who co-created the hit Broadway comedy “The Play That Goes Wrong,” remembers seeing Sean O’Casey’s “Juno and the Paycock” at Britain’s National Theatre in which a bereaved mother was getting ready to make her entrance into a Dublin tenement flat and deliver a crucial monologue mourning the loss of her son. But the set door got jammed and wouldn’t budge.
“You could see someone desperately trying to open the door, and it shaking and shaking and shaking, and you could see the other actors onstage trying to improvise to hide what was happening,” Sayer recalls, over the phone from his home in London. “They were like, ‘Oh, we gotta sort out that door, so we do.’ And it just got worse and worse, and then in the end the lead actor just said to the audience, ‘So for Christ’s sake, does anyone have a key?!’ And he brought down the house. I think people go to theater for those kind of magical moments.”
Indeed, pratfall- and pandemonium-filled moments, seemingly impromptu but plotted out like a precisely choreographed ballet, suffuse the madcap farce “The Play That Goes Wrong,” co-created by Sayer and two of his cohorts from the Mischief Theatre company, Henry Lewis and Henry Shields. The tour of that show, which won the Olivier Award for best new comedy and is scheduled to wrap up a nearly two-year Broadway stint in January, comes to the Emerson Colonial Theatre Nov. 7-18 in a presentation by Broadway in Boston.
A punch-drunk melding of “Monty Python,” “Sherlock Holmes,” and Michael Frayn’s classic backstage farce “Noises Off,” the show features a play-within-a-play setup centering on a troupe of hapless amateur actors from the Cornley University Drama Society attempting to perform a hoary whodunit, “The Murder at Haversham Manor.” As one thing after another goes haywire, the whole cracked enterprise, including the ramshackle set itself, begins to come apart at the seams. The antics include tone-deaf acting, malfunctioning set pieces, misplaced props, forgotten lines, slamming doors, indisposed actors, missed entrances, crashing scenery, and corpses that won’t stay dead.
The key to the whole comedic endeavor lies in the show’s bumbling actors and clueless stagehands desperately trying to maintain the theatrical illusion that they’re holding it all together despite the demolition derby of destruction unfolding around them. “[Our characters] are convinced that when something goes wrong, that will be the last thing that goes wrong all night,” says Ned Noyes, who portrays Max, an actor who discovers his own powers of audience ingratiation.
The idea, Noyes says, is to “play everything high stakes and as honest as possible, because the more tragic it is for the Cornley University Drama Society, the funnier it is for the audience,” he says, over the phone from the tour’s stop in Austin, Texas. “I think the trap is just to pretend you’re a bad actor, and that gets old really fast.”
The three Mischief cohorts met at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and bonded over their shared love of the American sitcom “Frasier,” “Monty Python,” and Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin silent comedies. Following graduation, they all lived together in a “pokey” flat in West London, began developing improv comedy shows, and helped launch an ensemble company they dubbed the Mischief Theatre in 2008. “I still find Henry and Henry just hilarious company to be in,” Sayer says. “We are all the best of friends and a little tight-knit family.”
After several years of developing long-form improv shows, the three friends decided to attempt a traditional, scripted slamming-door farce. They were inspired by a humor book about amateur theater in Britain called “The Art of Coarse Acting” by Michael Green, which skewers acting incompetence and the pretentiousness of theater while celebrating its hilarious and hapless disasters.
At the time, the trio were slogging through uninspiring day jobs to pay the rent — Shields in a pub, Lewis at a burger joint, and Sayer at a call center. They chose the murder-mystery genre because of its familiar, formulaic quality. “We wanted something that was very serious that we could undercut, and we thought there isn’t anything more serious than a very staid, British murder-mystery,” Sayer says.
An early, one-act version of “The Play That Goes Wrong” — starring all three of its creators — debuted in 2012 at the Old Red Lion, a small fringe theater venue located above an ancient London pub. There were multiple shows playing there, so they had to dismantle their set every night, cover and store it on a nearby roof terrace overnight. Because nothing could be bolted to the floor, actors would hide behind set pieces to hold them in place. “We started out doing a show in a similar way to the Cornley University Drama Society,” Lewis says, with a laugh. “We did everything ourselves, built the set, sourced the costumes, designed the fliers, hanged the lights. It was an adventure, and we very much learned by doing.”
The do-it-yourself aesthetic and ramshackle venue are ingrained in the DNA of the show, Sayer says. “It comes from a place where originally the actors could see the whites of the audience’s eyes,” he says. “We don’t just break the fourth wall; there’s just never any pretense that it exists in the first place, and that definitely comes from the pub. So we’ve always tried to keep that kind of immersive vibe.”
When some of the destructive or dramatic surprises would unfold, Sayer remembers hearing ”wonderful gasps” from the audience. He says the creative team followed the guidance of one of his improv instructors. “People love to watch a guy walk across a tightrope in the circus. But if you didn’t see him wobble ever, they wouldn’t enjoy it half as much,” Sayer says. “The fact that there is a sense of danger is so important.”
After two runs at the Old Red Lion, the show transferred to a larger space, Trafalgar Studios, and began generating “a cool underground buzz,” Sayer says. The production eventually ended up in London’s West End, where it’s still playing, and has toured internationally. It also spawned a sequel, “Peter Pan That Goes Wrong,” and a Mischief screwball caper about a priceless diamond, “The Comedy About a Bank Robbery,” that’s still playing in the West End. “It’s been a totally surreal six years,” Sayer says.
‘It feels like a rock concert every night. It’s a wall of laughter coming at you every six or seven seconds.’
It’s gratifying, Noyes says, to work on the kind of uproarious comedy that can be a unifying force at a time when society feels more divided than ever. “It feels like a rock concert every night. It’s a wall of laughter coming at you every six or seven seconds. It’s really thrilling to get to be part of something that is tickling everybody’s funny bones, no matter the age and no matter what city we’re in. It’s joyful and it’s unadulterated.”
The Play That Goes Wrong
At Emerson Colonial Theatre, Nov. 7-18. Tickets from $44.50, 888-616-0272, www.broadwayinboston.comChristopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.