J.J. Abrams Sets Sights on Broadway — Will the Farce Be With Him?

The farce -- judging by the reactions of fellow theatergoers -- is with J.J. Abrams, who produced the most recent film in the main “Star Wars” series and has now focused his tractor beam on Broadway audiences, as one of the lead backers of “The Play That Goes Wrong.”

“Wrong” is a “Noises Off”-like screwball comedy on the boards at The Lyceum Theatre, fresh from an award-winning West End run. The show Web site heralds Abrams’ involvement, puckishly declaring: “We can only assume he lost a bet.” The zinger would be funny, if it didn’t feel so true. (See a clip of Abrams promoting the comedy with Jimmy Fallon, here.)

“The Play That Goes Wrong” resembles the final act of “Noises Off,” when players in the Michael Frayn confection attempt to perform their play-within-a-play. “Wrong” stretches the gag out over two hours as the actors of “The Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society” work to stage a 1920s mystery, “The Murder at Haversham Manor.”

Prior to curtain, cast members mingle with the audience and meander around stage. Two appear to be repairing a misbehaving door handle on the properly flimsy set. An hour into the show, there’s shtick about a telephone wire that isn’t long enough. This is light and very, very familiar farce, from the Door Slamming School of British Comedy.

Mischief Theatre Company members Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields co-wrote “Wrong” and appear here, along with the entire original London cast, who earned their show a 2015 Olivier Award for top new comedy. Their stock in trade is broad physical comedy, and they make no pretense of trying to be anything haughty.

Shields, playing both the director and lead character of “Haversham Manor,” is likable, introducing the proceedings and apologizing for “our little box office mix-up,” adding that he hopes the “617 of you affected will enjoy our murder mystery just as much as you would have enjoyed ‘Hamilton.’” And so it goes.

Charlie Russell is good as the neophyte actress who strikes a pose at every scene, though Megan Hilty did the bit more memorably in Roundabout’s 2016 “Noises Off” revival. Nancy Zamit is quite funny as the stage manager, forced to take over her role (on book, of course) after Russell’s character is knocked unconscious.

Rob Falconer is appealing as Trevor Watson, the lighting and sound engineer, whose Duran Duran songs occasionally, accidentally, worm their way into the proceedings. And Lewis faces the toughest physical challenges in the comedy, easily winning our affection with his gutsiness and good nature.

There’s little character development across the two hours. The actors do a swell job rising, or perhaps stooping, to the audience’s level, so that during one scene when Shields’ inspector is searching high and low for a ledger, audience members, who can see it underneath a chaise, screamed its location at him. I suspect, and hope, this was set up during pre-show conversation.

You either go for this sort of thing or you don’t -- I don’t, particularly, but I was in the minority at a recent performance. “The Play That Goes Wrong” works best when you believe the actors are in real danger. There are times you do. I might’ve enjoyed it as a 70-minute romp. As things stand, for me at least, a comedy this tired just can’t be right.

“The Play That Goes Wrong,” at The Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St. Tickets, on sale through Sept. 3, $30-$139. Call 212-239-6200.

Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn

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