The Cornley Youth Theatre is back on Broadway — and in characteristically unfine form. Six years after laying waste to an Agatha Christie-style mystery in The Play That Goes Wrong, the unabashedly amateur troupe is taking on the now-public-domain classic Peter Pan with a uproariously inept deconstruction.
Murphy’s Law is the rule of the day for this company — from flubbed lines to onstage injuries to sets that never seem to hold together — and Peter Pan Goes Wrong offers the added challenge of aerial rigging to hoist its cast members into the air, where they spin and flail and then crash-land into scenery or the stage floor. From the moment you arrive at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, where the show opened Wednesday after a long and successful run in London, members of the fictional Cornley troupe are attempting to recruit audience members to take on the backstage role of flying operator. That’s a foreshadowing of the mayhem to come.
The Cornley productions are the work of a trio of brilliant comedic minds — Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields — all of whom appear on stage (as they did in The Play That Goes Wrong, which first debuted in 2012 in the U.K.). Lewis is the bearded Falstaffian figure who gets stuck in the Darling children’s bedroom doggie-doorway while playing the canine nanny Nana; Sayer is the dim-witted, short-sighted one who plays Wendy’s younger brother while wearing headphones that are meant to feed him his lines; and Shields is the somewhat officious troupe leader who brings a pompous pomp to the roles of Mr. Darling and Captain Hook.
They are joined by other veterans of the Mischief troupe, notably Ellie Morris as the accident-prone Neverlander; Nancy Zamit, a quick-change artist who morphs from Mrs. Darling to housekeeper to Tinkerbell with unflappable alacrity; and Matthew Cavendish as the vain crowd-pleaser who may have won his role because his uncle paid for the production’s more elaborate sets. Indeed, Simon Scullion’s set and Roberto Surace’s costume are a serious upgrade from most community theater — and even from the deliberately homespun design of The Play That Goes Wrong. There’s even a large turntable that spins to reveal the Darling home, Neverland and Hook’s pirate ship — and whose mechanism naturally goes all tilt-a-whirl in the delightfully daft second-act climax.
Director Adam Meggido orchestrates the silliness to clockwork perfection, no mean feat for a show that depends almost entirely on timing — of actors, of sets, and of factors like audience participation that are not remotely in the control of the cast or crew. (At the Saturday matinee I attended, the biggest laughs came for an 8-year-old boy who earnestly answered the question of where he was from with a long and hilarious disquisition about his origin story from birth.)
Leaving nothing to chance, the producers have opted to bring in a Broadway ringer for the first few weeks: Neil Patrick Harris, who plays the much-abused narrator as well as one of Hook’s pirates. It’s a role that suits Harris’s master-of-ceremonies persona, and one that allows him to shine without upstaging the rest of the cast. That’s a good thing, too, because Peter Pan Goes Wrong offers a giddy, giggly rush that, like the GPS directions to Neverland, should take you straight on till morning.