We made one of our twice-a-year visits to New York theater last month to catch almost certain Tony nominees and a couple of shows that opened just after we were there last fall. Intermittently before the certain-to-be-strange June 11 Tony Awards, we will share reviews of seven productions and performances that may or may not win, may or may not tour. The shows are: Life of Pi, Parade, Sweeney Todd, Some Like It Hot, Kimberly Akimbo, Peter Pan Goes Wrong and The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. Links to other reviews in this series can be found at the bottom as the reviews run. Last November, we reviewed contenders Leopoldstadt, & Juliet and Death of a Salesman
By Bill Hirschman
One of the difficulties in writing reviews of the arts is that some adjectives get overused or clumsily used or indiscriminately used in everyday life. So, when they are truly called for, readers can be forgiven for having a touch of suspicion.
So, trust us, the precise use of the technically forensic terms “fun,” “delightful” and “rollicking” are absolutely accurate when describing Peter Pan Goes Wrong, the latest in the development of no-holds-barred comedy from London’s Mischief Company.
This edition at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre is yet another step in the intentional de-volution of the comic art form that Americans first enjoyed with the hit The Play That Goes Wrong that has moved from Broadway to a current run off-Broadway.
The success of that first work here (and several others overseas) has infused more money in this production with even more complex sets, costumes and undependable special effects than before – but blessedly not a shred more sophistication.
What both share in is a bottomless vortex of comedic imagination and performance energy imagining a fifth-rate community theater in Great Britain. Barely rooted in J.M. Barrie’s stories (he gets credit whether he would want it or not), the tale sweeps from the Darlings’ bedroom, out across the London skyline, over to Neverland and then onto Hook’s ship – claustrophobically compact scenery on a modest turntable. This makes it sound far more technically sophisticated than it is and if you are familiar with the Mischief makers, you know everything malfunctions and falls apart.
The play once again is being presented by the shall we say modestly endowed Conley Productions and its small cadre of actors and crew members—the latter often getting drafted into parts when an actor is injured or missing.
As usually, actors miss their lines, sound cues pop up in the wrong place all the time. Props and scenery are a nightmare. At one point early on, the actor playing Nana, coming through a dog entrance at the bottom of a door, gets stuck and spends much of the first scene trying to escape.
But what’s different in this Mischief edition: If something goes wrong, very few seconds pass before the next misadventure and far more likely there are two or three mishaps occurring almost simultaneously competing for the cast and crew’s attention. It’s amazing that the real artists here manage to keep this pace undulating between full-out madness and carefully timed interludes.
It even confidently slows on rare occasions for extended showpieces. For instance, the actor Henry Shields playing Hook (and George Darling as always) pretends to stop the show to talk to the audience, which is encouraged to interact fully. (Of course, the actor has practiced and encountered nearly every conceivable dialogue). Or the same actor wants to open a champagne bottle but struggles a dozen ways to pull the cork out with his hook.
But the hardest working woman in show business title must go to Nancy Zamit whose actress part “Annie” ricochets between playing the Darling’s maid on one side of the house, zips through the set, appears on the other side as the mother Mary literally in less than two seconds in a different costume, then back two seconds later as the maid, and then …. (not to mention Curly the pirate and Tinker Bell whose fairy lights are connected by a long cable to stage left.)
For several weeks, the production was blessed with the “guest” appearance of Neil Patrick Harris as a narrator whose has no more success dealing with the calamities. Harris has moved on to more lucrative job assignments, but doubtless Mischief has a solid replacement. Late breaking: Just announced for the part: Ellie Kemper.
Of course, the evening begins long before curtain time as the cast members and supposed crew members ply the aisles downstairs and upstairs as audiences try to take their seats. One crew member spends much of the time in the mezzanine walking over patrons’ laps trying to find a hammer. Another man onstage is trying desperately to lay an electric line because the lamp on the set wall won’t illuminate. He eventually ends up laying the long extension cord through the audience between seats.
The cast, which honed this in a London production, is so skilled that civilians might not appreciate how well-timed and precision executed this all is, and, indeed, you shouldn’t. But any comedy pro can tell you, this work requires on paper and in execution a level of expertise – not just to keep the level of comedy, but to keep from someone getting hurt.
Incidentally, this delivers easily the finest contents that the New York Playbill magazine can offer including Annie’s ad looking for a man, a message from the Cornley Youth Theatre’s chief and glimpses of the Conley Productions upcoming schedule – Wind in the Willows, Wind in the Widows, Wind in the Pillows, Shakespeare’s Timon (and Pumba) of Athens, and Romeo and Juliet 2: Back From the Dead.
There are other adjectives we haven’t used yet, but, hey, make your own list and share it with us.
(By the way, I lied:This was not nominated for any Tony Award)
Review of Parade, click here