“Peter Pan Goes Wrong,” now playing at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theatre, has its roots partly in silent-film slapstick, partly in British pantomime and partly in Python. But maybe the best shorthand way to describe it would be as a recapitulation of “Noises Off” by way of “This Is Spinal Tap.” It’s the comedy of incompetence in its most frantic state, taking any sense of slow-burn ineptitude and turning it up to a full, hyper-farcical 11. As with its highly popular parent production, “The Play That Goes Wrong,” the idea here is to present a show-within-a-show-within-a-show in which everything that could go haywire will. Fresh gaffes and mishaps arrive every 20 seconds or so, as if Murphy’s Law had been brought to life and tied to a metronome for two hours.
How right does all this wrongfulness go? Pretty right… or at least you’re likely to think so if you are naturally prone to laugh at the age-old conceit of chaos running like clockwork. If it sounds too exhausting or silly to be your thing, there is no shame in sitting this one and waiting for “Hadestown” to occupy the same space in six weeks. But rest assured that the Ahmanson will be pretty well-filled for this run (which goes through Sept. 10). Anecdotal evidence suggests that a lot of the seats will be filled by “…Goes Wrong” cultists who did a little student or community theater themselves, back in the day, and are happy to come and be reminded of the things that went similarly screwy for them, or almost did. There but for the grace of schadenfreude go I, and all that.
Although “The Play That Goes Wrong” frequently is out on the road, “Peter Pan Goes Wrong” is not part of a U.S. tour, but represents the show’s single post-Broadway stop in the States. That could mean the Ahmanson draws a few more out-of-towners than usual, given the value that the whole “…Goes Wrong” franchise has accrued as a rand. The cast presently visiting L.A. is the same company that just wrapped up doing “Pan” for a few months in New York — which happened to be pretty much the same cast that originated the show in London in 2013-14, along with doing a much-streamed version for English TV a few years after that. In other words, these are the same skillful actors (and actor-writers) who’ve been mainstays of the Mischief troupe since the beginning. Not to put them in exactly the same league as the all-time greats, but for fans, the closest comparison might be if you had a chance to see a production of “Spamalot” that actually starred Monty Python.
“Peter Pan Goes Wrong” is obviously playing by much the same rulebook as “The Play That Goes Wrong.” These shows are high-concept to a fault: shit really goes wrong, with as little subtext and refinement as possible. But there is a crucial difference in this sequel. Whereas the cursed production in “The Play…,” the Mischief team invented a murder mystery from scratch, in this one, there’s a real classic being mangled. Co-writers Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Shields (who all have key on-stage roles as well) are out to make something altogether clumsy and calamitous out of “Peter Pan,” the rather poetic, 120-year-old J.M. Barrie play that turned the title character into a cultural evergreen. (By the way, although you might assume Barrie’s script is in the public domain — and in some parts of the world it is — that’s not the case in the U.K., so the credits feature billing for the Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity, to whom Barrie assigned his copyright.)
Probably a slight majority of the text of “…Goes Wrong” consists of dialogue lifted right from the 1903 “Pan.” That works out pretty schematically, in one of two ways: Either an old Barrie line sets up some bit of physical comedy, or it comes right after a goof or pratfall as ironic, anachronistic commentary on what just happened. Sometimes you may find yourself spending a little too much time scanning Barrie’s lines to guess how they will figure as setups for the next comedic business. At the end of Act 1, when the cocksure actor portraying Peter (played by Greg Tannahill) utters the famous cry that “to die will be an awfully big adventure,” you can be 1000% certain that it will immediately be followed by a bang-up stunt meant to at least imply the possibility of an on-stage fatality.
Some of the gags, like some of the actors, land with a bit of a thud. But some are really inspired. In one of the sequences that takes place early on in the Darling family’s London flat, before the kids take off for Neverland, a comment is made about how very unalike the children’s mother and nanny are. It’s right upon that utterance that you realize they’re being played by the same overtaxed actress — Nancy Zamit as the fictional actress Annie Twiloil… as Mrs. Darling and Liza. With a door repeatedly slamming open and closed, Zamit pulls off what feels like a literal magic act, changing outfits faster than Taylor Swift on the Eras Tour. When Zamit/Annie is soon revealed to be Tinker Bell, too, the joke really crystallizes, as an extended gag about how thinly stretched a small cast taking on a large ensemble piece might become. I’d gladly see “Peter Pan Goes Wrong” twice more just to see Zamit wring laughs out of these impossible quick-changes again.
There is a framing device, naturally, before everyone starts taking a wrecking ball to “Pan.” The show is introduced as a production not of Mischief or the Ahmanson but the Cornley Youth Theater, populated by the same underachieving characters first seen as the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society in “The Play That Goes Wrong.” Setting the stage are the imperious “Pan” director, Chris Bean (Henry Shields), who will also be playing Captain Hook and Mr. Darling, and his jealously aggrieved assistant director, Robert Grove (Henry Louis), who will be doubling (or tripling or quadrupling) as Peter Pan’s shadow, a key pirate and the Darling family’s dog, Nana. In a case of TMI, they manage to lay out the weaknesses of most of the cast members to come, who will tend to be defined by one maladroit trait: Dennis (played by Sayer, the Mischief company director) can’t memorize lines and will be fed each one through a headset, including whatever might occur via radio interference. Lucy (Ellie Morris) is too stricken with stage-fright to utter a word, usually. Max (Matthew Cavendish) is deeply distracted by his unrequited love for the show’s Wendy, aka Sandra (Charlie Russell), who’s already busy carrying on a backstage affair with Pan, the boy who could and did grow up to be a hound dog.
Some of the gags are milked a little longer than they need to be. A little bit of the pudgy figure playing Nana trying and failing to remove himself from a dog-door in the Darlings’ flat goes a long way, before someone finally busts out a prop chainsaw. At the same time, extended milking sometimes works to the comedy’s advantage. The character of Dennis veritably screams his way through everything that accidentally comes into his headphones, and there’s one bit late in the show in which he relays both sides of a marital breakup that is happening backstage — a routine that goes on for so long that it actually crosses the divide from funny to unfunny all the way back to funny again. Credit the fact that Sayer delivers all of this random information in the same 120-decibel deadpan holler for making a schtick that should wear out quickly continue to engender snickers.
Like Pan himself, I found myself being especially fond of Wendy, mostly for how Charlie Russell, as the actress Sandra, has fleeting moments of wanting to reinvent the innocent heroine as a saucy mama, with some not entirely “Pan”-appropriate go-go moves. (They’re not so wildly inappropriate that the show ever endangers what would be a soft PG rating.) I also had a soft spot for the hard-ass-edness of Henry Bean as the director-as-Hook, who might be accused of doing a variation on the John Cleese persona, except that that kind of aggrieved British entitlement-turned-rage can’t really be said to belong to Cleese alone. (And even if did, Bean is doing it well enough that it doesn’t matter.) Even some of the players with less stage time get in a memorable moment or three. As the stage manager, Trevor, Chris Leask mostly is charged with seeming like he holds the entire acting profession in complete disdain, until the moment arrives in Act 2 when he is called to fill in as Pan. The show becomes his for a few wild minutes as he takes part in an extended aerial disaster on wires, his exasperation finally giving way to a beatific embrace of the ego of being a leading man — a moment of glory cut short when he is suddenly made to walk a plank, in a manner of speaking.
It’s hard to pick out a star among the ensemble, but in the final setpiece, one emerges: the set itself. Designed by Simon Scullion, it’s a revolving carousel that allows the actors to move in and out of three rooms. In the end, it turns out that, although the Cornley Youth Theater may have had to cut a few corners along the way, it invested way too much horsepower in what becomes a tilt-a-whirl for the actors-playing-actors. Director Adam Meggido — the real director — manages to make that climactic mayhem feel almost graceful, through some kind of mixture of choreography, crowd control and thrill-ride operation. There is still some dialogue happening at this point, but basically it becomes something out of a Keaton or Lloyd climax, as cast members throw themselves at one another as centers of gravity shift on this wayward but extremely well-oiled machine. (This might not even be the greatest triumph of the production design team, though; I’m partial to the collapsible bunkbed that gets a huge, startled laugh in Act 1.)
There’s stuntwork, and then there’s stunt casting. For the latter, productions of the show have typically had celebrities pass through in the “Peter Pan” narrator role — speaking of rotation — and at the Ahmanson, it’s Bradley Whitford through Aug. 27, to be followed by Daniel Dae Kim from Aug. 30-Sept. 10. To the extent that some improv is encourged out of star guests, Whitford has been playing it as a mixture of vainglorious — bringing multiple Emmys out on stage with him — and righteous, working in advocacy for the current Hollywood strikes.
Even without Whitford breaking a fourth wall to speak on behalf of SAG-AFTRA during the evening, it’s hard to conceive of a more pro-actor show. Granted, if you’re coming to this show looking for an underlying message, you’ve probably come to the wrong place. But besides making hay out of incompetence, the Mischief team also seems to have put this show together as a testament to how actors can improvise on the fly, under extreme duress, as many of the characters do here. For almost every moment in which a thesp mortifyingly screws up, there’s also one in which someone comes up with a quick fix that makes it possible at least to get to the next scene, if not actually turn disaster into success. By cataloguing so many of the awful exceptions that prove a rule, “Peter Pan Goes Wrong” is intrinsically a celebration of all the ways in which the legit theater, against all odds, usually goes right.
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