The Secrets of Slapstick in “The Play That Goes Wrong”

Actors from the long-running British comedy show our writer how to get physical. And funny.

Photo by Jeremy Daniel

You probably know the old saying: “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.” After a backstage visit to The Play That Goes Wrong, I have to agree that making people laugh is no laughing matter. It takes courage, physical stamina, and excellent timing. That goes double if we’re talking slapstick comedy. Stand a few feet too close and you’ll get a flying prop in the schnoz.

Still, effective comedy relies on a certain amount of pain, as the troupers at the Lyceum Theatre pointed out to me one afternoon. Mark Evans, Alex Mandell, and Amelia McClain cheerfully guided me through some of the tricks that have ticket holders rolling in the proverbial aisle (or ROTFL, if you prefer). Watch me attempt to master the art of slapstick in the video below (and if you want to see the gags in person, enter here to win four tickets to the show):

In case you haven’t seen the London import, The Play That Goes Wrong is a play within a play. The show is framed as The Murder at Haversham Manor, an Agatha Christie–style mystery in an English country house: corpse on the divan, intrepid detective, multiple clues, and a series of improbable revelations. But the pompous director, amateur cast, and clumsy crew are thwarted over and over by doors that don’t open, props that break, flubbed lines, and scenery that falls to pieces. The comic engine of the play is watching the actors’ idiotically dogged attempts to keep the scenes together, which only adds to the chaos and absurdity.

the play that goes wrong broadway
The Play That Goes Wrong actors Amelia McLain, Alex Mandell, and Mark Evans. / Photo by Stefano Giovannini

One routine involves a coat of arms above a door that swings down just as the increasingly crazed director-slash-detective (played by Evans) enters, smacking him in the face and causing him to fall on his butt. Evans showed me how the padded set piece never actually comes near his face; he’s several inches behind it in the door frame, and yet from the audience’s perspective, it looks like a direct hit. A lot of the gags, I learned, are carefully spaced optical tricks involving depth perception.

the play that goes wrong broadway
Mark Evans and Alex Mandell demonstrate the coat of arms trick. / Photo by Stefano Giovannini

Meanwhile, the slapstick in the wings completes the illusion of getting bashed in the kisser. Yes, “slapstick” isn’t just a descriptor for physical comedy; it’s a real thing. For centuries, two wooden boards have been used for sound FX—slapsticks clapped together. If you’ve not yet learned something new today, there are you—you’re welcome. Backstage, McClain (who plays Florence, the dead man’s fiancée) demonstrated how the production uses a specially designed, heavy-duty slapstick to fill the large Lyceum Theatre with the resounding clap of comic violence.

Amelia McLain demonstrates the “slapstick” prop for WSWD writer David Cote. / Photo by Stefano Giovannini

After my backstage sneak peek, I enjoyed a Wednesday matinee performance of The Play That Goes Wrong with a packed, enthusiastic house. You may well ask: Does knowing how the actors simulate all that mayhem diminish its funny quotient? As a lover of British humor, from Monty Python’s Flying Circus to One Man, Two Guvnors, I happily answer: No. The show is still quite a carnival of meta-theatrical silliness—from the preshow antics as the tech crew tries to fix a stage door that won’t stay shut to the final catastrophic flopping of the entire set—requiring actors to play not only the bombastic characters within the melodrama, but also the hapless performers having the worst show of their lives. It’s amazing how it all goes right.

The Play That Goes Wrong
Lyceum Theatre
149 West 45th Street (between Sixth and Seventh Avenues), Theater District

See the show for yourself (just watch out for swinging coats of arms). Enter to win four tickets to The Play That Goes Wrong, plus dinner on us!