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Players At Large: "Magic Goes Wrong"

Updated: Mar 24, 2023


I’ll bet I’ve sold a dozen tickets to The Play That Goes Wrong since I first saw it in the West End nearly five years ago. It’s a door-slamming farce, a cousin to Noises Off (of which I also can’t get enough), only the premise here is that the cast and crew are British amateurs. As they attempt to stage a stereotypical locked-door murder mystery, Murphy’s Law arrives, flourishes, and rampages for two solid hours. It’s the unluckiest production humanly possible, but the poor beleaguered cast charmingly soldiers on: what else can they do? It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on a stage.

I’m not the only one smitten. J. J. Abrams loved The Play That Goes Wrong so much that he helped bring it to Broadway, where it won the Tony for set design; if you see it you’ll understand why. Later, the comic magicians Penn & Teller also had a (separate) look and were just as excited. This was their introduction to “Mischief Theatre,” founded by the three lads who devised the deliberate debacle, and somebody must have said, “hey, guys: Magic Goes Wrong!” The instant my brother and I heard of it, we snagged our tickets, and at approximately one month B.C. (Before Coronavirus), we settled into London’s Vaudeville Theatre for the collaboration.

The piece presents itself as a televised fundraiser for a charity devoted to magicians who have been injured attempting to perform magic tricks. (The “charity’s” hilarious cartoon logo features a magic wand stuck in the magician’s eye.) Then we are treated to a typical tv variety show during which the magicians turn out to be not nearly as deft as they intended. As we’d hoped, the result is tear-makingly delicious.

Not only is the show heartily entertaining on its face, it also takes sly digs at the cliched tropes of magic. The emcee is “Sophisticato,” who has faced a lifelong struggle for the approbation of his recently deceased conjuror-father (played by a portrait of the late Johnny Thompson, who was a beloved magic consultant). “Mind Mangler” is a delightfully inept mentalist and card handler. Funniest of all is a daredevil “rock & roll magician,” an over-amped cross between Criss Angel and David Blaine, known as “The Blade.” Four other performers keep things moving faster than you have time to ponder, which is, after all, the secret of magic, even when it’s going to go wrong.

Dave Hearn in his bravura performance as The Blade.

I won’t offer any specifics regarding what actually happens. Magic is all about surprise, so that’s for you to discover. (This show is almost certain to make the same trip to America as did The Play, especially with Abrams serving this time as a lead producer.) But fans of Penn & Teller’s work will occasionally have an unusual perspective, as a handful of tricks originated in their act, including their hilarious Houdini water torture, a card-finding illusion using a sharp object, and a sawing-a-lady-into-halves routine. P&T devotees will thus be able to discern the lovely handiwork of Mischief Theatre as the "Wrong Boys" (that's how their American partners refer to them) contribute bits and beats that lift each piece over and above the original presentation -- and that's only the few we've seen before. This truly is a match made in prestidigitational heaven.

Sophisticato (Henry Shields) and Mind Mangler (Henry Lewis), about to saw. What could possibly go wrong?

Being a Player helped make my trip especially pleasant. The fine folks at the Groucho Club were very gracious during my three-night stay, and I was able to introduce my brother to the magnificent Garrick Club, which is likely to have inspired our founder Edwin Booth.

Tom Dupree has been a professional newsman, adman, critic and editor, and an actor and director at the college and community level. His personal blog is at He saw this show on February 12th; how long will it be before the next one?


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