The only thing America loves more than watching work imported from Great Britain is when that same British work goes wildly off the rails. What is “The Great British Bake Off” without toppling cakes, or romantic Ed Sheeran without goofy relationship misadventures, or “Dr. Who” without a confoundedly sputtering David Tennant?
Targeting the dippier side of American Anglophilia are Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields — the co-founders and playwrights of Great Britain’s Mischief Theatre Company — and their imaginary Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society (Cornley U for the Yanks). Theirs is a team manically adept at creating adroitly bumbling, screwball comic twists on Anglo theatrical tropes. First they lampooned the Agatha Christie whodunnit with “The Play That Goes Wrong,” which was mounted in London in 2012 and has played Broadway and beyond.
Now, freshly imported again from the London stage, Lewis, Sayer and Shields portray the inner lives of the Cornley crew, whose personal dramas (secret sexual relationships, parking accidents turned deadly, dueling inexperienced actors) rival the onstage action. In their latest Broadway outing they turn their knives, tights and sights to J. M. Barrie’s eternal boyhood classic, “Peter Pan.” And, until April 30, Mischief’s madcap laughs are abetted by Neil Patrick Harris in the doubled-up roles of our story’s put-upon, pratfalling, head-banging (and not in a heavy metal way) narrator Francis Beaumont, and as an actor-pirate with a knack for turning Broadway programs into not-so-menacing weapons. (Does the phrase “’Six’ shooter” give anything away?)
Imagine an awkwardly sardonic, parrot-death-denying, Inquisition-ambushed, Cambridge-educated Monty Python’s Flying Circus troupe portraying the “Seinfeld” cast, and you’re liable to understand the lure of the Mischief Theatre Company’s antics. Sometimes, “Peter Pan Goes Wrong” goes long and belabors its physical and vocal antics. But in general, too much of a good thing is a great thing here.
The premise of “Peter Pan Goes Wrong” is simple, until it isn’t. A not-so-well-heeled theater company of ungainly, hammy thespians, tenderhearted amateurs and demanding directors put on their version of “Peter Pan” in a theater with a noisy, faulty electrical grid, unsafe rigging, unsecured trap doors, and — in a dizzying sequence dazzling in its execution by performers and stagers alike — quick-spinning carousel sets that refuse to lock in place.
When we’re not busy with the behind-the-scenes action that starts the play before the-play-within-the-play, watching Trevor the punkish stage manager (Chris Leask) mucking about, we’re overhearing the taped voice of “co-director” Robert (Lewis) practicing accents and saying awkwardly uncomfortable things not meant for cast consumption. The cast at his mercy includes new actors such as Dennis (Sayer), who can’t memorize text and is given oversized headsets to feed him lines and stage directions. Then there is the lead actress playing young Wendy Darling (Charlie Russell), who seems to believe she is in “Gypsy,” performing tassel-shaking gyrations even as she’s meant to lead her innocent brothers through Neverland.
The cast of “Peter Pan Goes Wrong” is exquisite, and exceptional when it comes to making the dangerous aspects of mayhem and mistakes look accidental. While the wonky wire work of both Leask and Greg Tannahill (the play’s Peter Pan, and its chief Lothario) induces panic, so too does the manner in which every cast member seems on the brink of linguistic destruction.
The standout here is actor Nancy Zamit. Cast in multiple roles as Mother Mary Darling, Lisa the Darlings’ housemaid, Curly the Lost Boy of Neverland, a glittering Tinkerbell, and as Annie — the single Cornley actress behind those parts — it is difficult to gauge what is more wildly challenging for Zamit: quick changing outfits in milliseconds or having to sing-scream over stagehands buzz-sawing their way through scenery while additionally chewing it up.
Doubling as George, the patriarch of the Darling family, and the despised Captain Hook, Chris Bean is a marvel: a gawky, John Cleese-like beanpole whose every trip and turn is an entrée to the Ministry of Silly Walks. And yet, rather than ape Cleese, Bean’s pratfalls and spittle-spraying proclamations of frustration are as naturalistic to his lean, long frame and wiry demeanor as gin is to juice.
Harris also takes to his two roles with ditzy, unbuttoned comic relish, both as a narrator who forever tosses sparkly confetti and as an a “rrrr”-rolling actor-pirate whose shoelaces seem forever tied together.
All of this hyperactive, hyperventilating Peter Pan-ing can sometimes run a joke aground or get overly frantic, but that’s exactly the point. “Peter Pan Goes Wrong” goes precisely to the slapstick, screwball-comic brink, then leaps ten yards over it while banging its head on the scenery and speaking very loudly and quickly. Save for an overlong, interactive stretch of characters talking to the audience at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre while tending to a not-really-dead Tinkerbell (her revival is heartwarming, until rude sound effects intentionally ruin the magic), this “Peter Pan” almost always goes right.
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