Star Wars meets Broad­way

With Bri­tish farce, di­rec­tor J.J. Abrams be­comes a stage pro­ducer

The Niagara Falls Review - - ENTERTAINMENT - JAKE COYLE

NEW YORK — Seek­ing a break from green screens and lightsabers while shoot­ing The Force

Awak­ens out­side Lon­don, di­rec­tor J.J. Abrams de­cided to catch a play.

“I had a free night and looked to see what was play­ing,” Abrams says. “I saw some­thing that was called The Play That Goes Wrong that sounded amus­ing. I bought a ticket and went know­ing noth­ing. I’d never laughed that hard. I’d never seen an au­di­ence laugh that hard.”

That Abrams ac­ci­den­tally stum­bled upon The Play That

Goes Wrong is fit­ting. It’s a work stuffed with stum­bling and a 100car pile-up’s worth of ac­ci­dents.

And now, with Abrams as a pro­ducer, The Play That Goes

Wrong has ca­reened all the way to Broad­way. Cur­rently in pre­views, it will of­fi­cially open April 2 at the Lyceum The­atre.

Though its name could dou­ble as a nick­name for Julie Tay­mor’s ill-fated, mis­take-prone Spi­der Man, The Play That Goes Wrong is a mad­cap farce — os­ten­si­bly a 1920s mur­der mys­tery — in which lines are flubbed, en­trances are poorly timed, ac­tresses have a pen­chant for be­ing knocked un­con­scious and not a sin­gle prop is ever where it ought to be. Some will cer­tainly re­call the back­stage com­edy Noises Off, but The Play That Goes Wrong, with the slap­stick of Monty Python in its blood, cranks the chaos up to 11.

It marks the Broad­way de­but of an un­usual pair. It’s the first pro­fes­sional step into the­atre for Abrams, the pre-emi­nent crafter of block­buster science fic­tion and small-screen puz­zles. And it’s also the Broad­way de­but for Lon­don’s Mis­chief The­atre. Kevin McCol­lum, the play’s other pro­ducer, calls the troupe — in­clud­ing artis­tic di­rec­tor Henry Lewis and com­pany di­rec­tor Jonathan Sayer — “the comic Step­pen­wolf.”

Though the play ran for two years in the West End and won an Olivier Award, it comes from hum­ble be­gin­nings. It was first put on (with less-spec­tac­u­lar dis­as­ters) above a pub in North Lon­don. The irony that a lit­tle Bri­tish com­edy with­out big names has at­tracted a bene­fac­tor in Abrams, maker of globe-span­ning bil­lion-dol­lar movies, is not lost on the group. The play dis­be­liev­ingly ad­ver­tises Abrams as “who we can only as­sume lost a bet.”

But Abrams’ in­volve­ment is gen­uine. Says McCol­lum, the veteran pro­ducer of Av­enue Q and In the Height: “He came to this with­out a cyn­i­cal ounce. He didn’t do it be­cause we needed him to sell tick­ets or any­thing. It was like: ‘I love this show. You love this show. I love the­atre. I’d love to work in the­atre a lit­tle bit more.’ I’m like, ‘Great, come. Let’s do this.’”

And though Abrams has long seemed a nat­u­ral-born movie di­rec­tor, he di­rected and acted in plays in high school and univer­sity. He’s a life­long col­lec­tor of Play­bill mag­a­zines. His love of Hamil­ton led to Lin-Manuel Mi­randa com­pos­ing the Cantina Band mu­sic in The Force Awak­ens.

Abrams may have also been look­ing for an an­ti­dote to largescale movie pro­duc­tion.

“I so love the com­mu­nity of put­ting on a show, not re­ly­ing on ed­i­tors, not re­ly­ing on spe­cial ef­fects or spec­ta­cle,” Abrams says. “There’s some­thing so pure about it. It is a re­mark­able thing, be­ing so ac­cus­tomed to all the crutches that film al­lows, to see how an au­di­ence can be so moved by a hand­ful of peo­ple on the stage with make-up and cos­tumes and light­ing. It’s al­ways a won­der to me.”

He’s also, in man­ner and moviemak­ing, un­flap­pable and pre­cise — quite un­like the mad­cap ma­nia of The Play That Goes

Wrong. But Lewis be­lieves the show, where char­ac­ters ab­surdly try to cover their er­rors, speaks to the uni­ver­sal feel­ing — com­mon not just in the­atre and movies — “of panic and see­ing the whites in peo­ple’s eyes.”

“Ev­ery­body’s had that feel­ing on stage when some­thing’s gone wrong and try­ing to fig­ure out what to do,” Lewis says. “And things have gone wrong in this show — or things that were sup­posed to go wrong have not gone wrong and there­fore it’s gone wrong. We had a sit­u­a­tion the other night where one of the ob­jects that was sup­posed to fall off the wall didn’t.”

Af­ter a break be­tween per­form­ing in Lon­don and New York, Lewis says the play­ers are now get­ting their “match fit­ness” back for the phys­i­cal rigours of their nightly train wreck. “When we re­hearse it,” he says, “it’s not quite the same. The au­di­ence sup­plies the pres­sure.”

CHRISTO­PHER SMITH/INVISION/AP

Di­rec­tor-pro­ducer J.J. Abrams is a pro­ducer for The Play That Goes Wrong, which opens April 2 at the Lyceum The­atre in New York.

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