It’s always fun to see someone get bonked on the head. The question is really the amount of fun to be had per bonk. One bonk is a reliable punch line. Two can seem like a little much. Three, thanks to comedy’s rule of threes, is funnier than two or one. More than that is generally overkill until you get to about 50, when the gag might get funny again. There’s an undulating curve at work in the relationship between head trauma and humor, going from funny to tedious, wrapping back around to funny, then cycling back and forth. That’s the kind of thing you think about while watching Peter Pan Goes Wrong, a British farce that beats you over the head with staged concussions, pratfalls, leg injuries, and, since Peter Pan flies around in a harness, one particularly spectacular drop from the rafters. In every case, you cringe at the potential of bodily harm, then bounce back into laughter. It’s basic, lowest-common-denominator theater, but it tends to work with variable but generally positive returns. Let this cast entertain you. Let their bonks make you smile.
Peter Pan comes to us Americans from London’s Goes Wrong franchise, created by the Mischief Theatre company. Back in 2017, their first ship of the line arrived in the form of The Play That Goes Wrong, a Noises Off–style farce based around performers messing up a fictional hoary stage play. This time around, they’ve taken on an actual hoary tale, imagining an attempt by the same Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society to stage J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. As with The Play That Goes Wrong, Mischief’s Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields created the concept and appear in the show. Things go off the rails for reasons both mundane, like actors forgetting their lines, and elaborately absurd. Just wait till you see the pirate-ship set start spinning.
The good thing about basing everything around Peter Pan is that it gives this iteration of Mischief’s work a solid and thoroughly comprehensible underpinning (though, interestingly, not quite a public-domain one given the intricacies of British copyright law around Peter Pan). The story is in that sweet spot of being familiar enough for the average audience member, so you know what would happen if everything went right, but not so precious for you to want that version of it. Instead, from the moment you meet the three Darling children, all obviously played by adults pretending to be youth, you’re rooting for them to start bickering and messing up their cues. Throw in another actor playing their dog, Nana (Field, immediately getting stuck in the door), and a guest narrator who’s high on his own self-importance (Neil Patrick Harris at my performance, though other celebrities will cycle through after his run finishes on April 30) and you’re off to the broken-down races.
The bread and butter of Peter Pan’s humor is broad and full of grievous injuries. Like most carb-and-fat combinations, that means it goes down easy but risks leaving us too sated too soon. For the most part, Peter Pan Goes Wrong manages by keeping the action moving. There’s a bit in which the actor playing John Darling (Sayer) keeps shouting the lines fed to him through a headset, and it drags on, though the creators manage to subvert it with a twist in the second act. Nancy Zamit, playing an actress who’s agreed to handle the roles of the mother, the maid, and Tinkerbell, makes a show of rapid-fire quick changes and then a show of being dramatically zapped by her light-up fairy outfit. Simon Scullion’s set breaks down in all the ways you might expect and then some. Peter Pan’s closest thing to a hero might be the show within a show’s put-upon stage manager (Chris Leask), who wanders through the background of scenes fixing the lighting and unsticking the actors before being thrust into a starring role himself.
Peter Pan Goes Wrong’s affection for that stage manager is part of its gentle moral tilt, which helps level out the more gruesome aspects of the farce. We see quite a lot of terrible stuff happen to these actors, but we also learn just enough to know who deserves comeuppance. The Cornley Society directors are stuck up and get the most embarrassment. One’s an upper-class twit who insists he’s not doing a kids’ show and suffers through all sorts of prop failures; the other, a stage dad to a daughter who can’t remember her lines, is issued outlandishly degrading costumes (at one point, he’s a tree). Meanwhile, the kids (or, rather, the adults playing kids) suffer, but they also inch toward moments of heroism. There isn’t great depth to any of these farcical circumstances — a bit of backstory involves a version of Oliver! that went off the rails for even more outlandish reasons than you see in Peter Pan — but there’s enough to nudge the audience into some basic emotional investment. The second act gets everyone in the audience booing Captain Hook (Chris Shields) and rooting for Tinkerbell to come back from the dead, just as any production of Peter Pan would hope to do. On that point, the members of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society would be proud to have pulled off a Peter Pan that does rather well, even if it’s gotten to that point through its own shambolic means.
Peter Pan Goes Wrong is at the Barrymore Theatre.