Absolutely hysterical! Laugh out loud funny from start to finish!
LOS ANGELES — AUG 16, 2023
On Tuesday night, your intrepid reviewer, along with his wife, ventured bravely into the mayhem that is “Peter Pan Goes Wrong” at the Ahmanson Theatre, and found ourselves choking with laughter at both the sly in-jokes and the physical chaos.
The Peter Pan staging by the hapless takes on a very similar meta theme with the same incompetent Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society (from “The Play That Goes Wrong”) trying to stage a "serious" version of JM Barrie's classic, but ends up being more slapstick than serious thesp.
Pretty well everyone is already familiar with JM Barrie’s story about Wendy, John and Michael’s trip to Neverland in the company of the obstreperous Tinkerbell (whose lighted tutu is attached to the main electrical supply…you can guess what happens) and the boy who refuses to grow up, and seems unlikely ever to do so, given the amount of concussion sustained.
Ten years ago, Mischief Productions brought its CPDS play within a play entitled “The Murder at Haversham Manor” from its home base in England to Broadway. Part of the manor collapsed. An actor was poisoned in a prop mix-up. After the leading lady was knocked unconscious by a door, she was replaced by the stage manager; when knocked unconscious as well, he was replaced by a sound technician and eventually, somehow, a grandfather clock.
In “Peter Pan Goes Wrong,” many of the same disasters happen chez Darling as happened at Haversham Manor, or close variations on them. Let’s just say that Peter doesn’t fly so much as flail while airborne. He, too, finds himself dangling upside down and is knocked unconscious. This scenario is not that new really. In the 1920’s Gladys Cooper played Peter Pan and had some rows going on with the stage hands, who took their revenge on her during her flying sequences. She also bounced off scenery like a wrecking ball.
Directed by Adam Meggido, this is a slicker affair than “The Play That Goes Wrong,” and has the added bonus (on this tour stop) with the presence of Bradley Whitford (of NBC’s “The West Wing” and “The Handmaids Tale” fame) as a narrator constantly upstaged by his chair.
The play’s three authors, once drama school chums, have given themselves the best roles. Henry Shields, the choleric, John Cleese-like one, plays Mr. Darling and Captain Hook; Henry Lewis, the haunted teddy bear, is naturally Nana; and Jonathan Sayer is the head-phoned idiot who barely belongs on a stage. There’s good work, too, from Matthew Cavendish as Max, who has only been cast because his uncle put up the money; Nancy Zamit as Annie, a multiple quick-change failure, and Ellie Morris as the stage-fright-afflicted Lucy, who believes in fairies. It’s formulaic, but it delivers.
So when you arrive, take a long look at the uncurtained stage. Now try to envision the ways that this set might be violently dismembered by a cast of really bad, really clumsy actors. Whatever visions of chaos your imagination summons, the odds are that this show’s artfully hapless team will exceed them, letting loose the suppressed, rambunctious, juvenile giggler within you. There’s even a brilliant blacklit scene with fluorescent fish forming hilarious, cheeky shapes, some X-rated.
You may notice also, before the production begins, cast and crew members are discovered roaming the stage and aisles with distraught purposefulness, making last-minute adjustments to electrical failures or broken seats in the audience.
Onstage, the Darlings’ nursery looks as if it were built on a budget not greater than the cost of a ticket, with a rickety three-level bunk bed, a wobbly casement window and wiring that’s already sparking before the lights go down. And that turntable set that is supposed to deliver the children home from Neverland looks just as likely to deliver them to the emergency room (nearly fulfilling Peter’s prediction in the Barrie play: “To die will be an awfully big adventure”).
Milder but more endearing are the jokes that depend on miscues, amateur acting and erratic stagecraft. The aforementioned chair that is meant to deliver the narrator (Mr. Whitford, who is expert at consternation that turns into helplessness) to and from the stage sometimes jerks him too suddenly into position and other times makes an excruciatingly slow exit. And somewhere during all the befuddlement, Nana, the Darlings’ Newfoundland-slash-nursemaid, gets trapped trying to squeeze through a dog door, and has to be chain-sawed out.
Dennis (Mr. Sayer), who plays John Darling and Mr. Smee, and “who doesn’t know a single line,” must have his words provided through headphones; he repeats them verbatim, even when they’re clearly not meant to be spoken. “Dennis, you’re wearing the wrong costume,” he declaims proudly. “No, don’t say that, that is obviously not a line.” In such moments, “Peter Pan Goes Wrong” begins to achieve the dizzying liftoff of the best backstage farces, bringing to mind Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off.”
In the confusing atmosphere where real life, the play, and the play within the play meet, you feel unmoored from the customary gravity of the theater. Words make very little sense, especially when, as happens blissfully once or twice, the dialogue slips out of alignment and one actor jumps ahead while another stays behind. (That also happened in “The Play That Goes Wrong.”) And when Mrs. Darling and her maid (Ms. Zamit) are declared to be “different in every way” though they are quite obviously played by the same flustered actor, disbelief is more than suspended. Wonderfully, it’s shattered.
The cast is exceptional and has honed their schtick into endorphin-releasing weapons. Almost all scenes require impeccable timing in order to be pulled off properly (and avoid things going wrong for real). This demanding form of theatre is not for the faint-hearted and requires a lot of energy, though luckily Mischief Theatre seem to be true masters of the art. The still young British company has evidently found a winning formula, as it has since taken Britain by storm with the Olivier-nominated play “The Comedy About a Bank Robbery,” the Penn and Teller collaboration “Magic Goes Wrong,” the TV special “A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong,” and the improv show “Mischief Movie Night.”
So, if you can handle fist-in-mouth cringing jokes, jaw-dropping physical comedy and are prepared to have your ribs hurt for days after, this is definitely one to see! My audience, for the record, roared as loudly as the crowds at any wrestling match.
CENTER THEATRE GROUP, PRESENTS A MISCHIEF PRODUCTION OF PETER PAN GOES WRONG. Based on the play PETER PAN by JM BARRIE. By HENRY LEWIS, JONATHAN SAYER & HENRY SHIELDS; Directed by ADAM MEGGIDO; Scenic Design by SIMON SCULLION; Costume Design by ROBERTO SURACE; Lighting Design by MATTHEW HASKINS; Sound Design by ELLA WAHLSTROM; Original Music by RICHARD BAKER & ROB FALCONER; Wig & Makeup Design by TOMMY KURZMAN; Production Stage Manager ADAM JOHN HUNTER.
WITH: CHRIS LEASK, HENRY SHIELDS, HENRY LEWIS, MATTHEW CAVENDISH, HARRY KERSHAW, CHARLIE RUSSELL, JONATHAN SAYER, NANCY ZAMIT, RYAN VINCENT ANDERSON, GREG TANNAHILL, ELLIE MORRIS, STEPHEN JAMES ANTHONY, BLAIR BAKER, BARTLEY BOOZ, BRENANN STACKER.
PETER PAN GOES WRONG is being presented at the AHMANSON THEATRE, LA, CA from August 8—September 10. Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8PM; Saturdays at 2PM and Sundays at 1PM & 6:30PM. There is a 15-min intermission. Ticket prices start at $40. For Ticket Reservations, see www.centertheatregroup.org
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
Photo Credits: Jeremy Daniel