Producer, writer, and director J.J. Abrams has found success in Hollywood with works including Lost, Cloverfield, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But for his first Broadway venture, plane crashes, skyscraper-destroying aliens, and Starkiller strikes aren’t the worst thing that could happen. Here, the worst thing that could happen is that it goes right.
The Emmy nominee has teamed up with Broadway veteran Kevin McCollum to produce the Broadway transfer of The Play That Goes Wrong, an Olivier-winning farce that originated as a fringe show from the theatre company Mischief Theatre at the Old Red Lion pub prior to subsequent productions at Trafalgar Studios, the West End, and over a dozen countries around the world. Broadway performances began March 9 at the Lyceum Theatre, where it is scheduled to open officially April 2.
The play follows a theatre troupe as they struggle to get through a run of their murder mystery without succumbing to the disasters surrounding them: falling set pieces, sticking doors, missed cues, anything covered under Murphy’s Law. With no intergalactic ice planet in sight, how did Abrams find himself at this show in the first place?
“I was in London shooting The Force Awakens,” Abrams tells Playbill. “I had a free night, and I looked to see what was playing. I thought, ‘That sounds funny.’ I went to the theatre, and I had never laughed that hard. I hadn’t seen an audience laugh that hard. I remember asking the producers afterward, ‘What are your plans?’ They looked at me like I was crazy. Their plan was just that the show not fail.”
Despite sticking to the screen until now, Abrams admits to loving theatre his entire life. Having been born in New York City and attending Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers (though growing up in Los Angeles), he recalls seeing the Doug Henning-led The Magic Show and Jim Dale in Barnum as a kid with his grandmother.
When back in the area as a student, he was drawn to plays like The Real Thing and Hurlyburly (which, coincidentally, saw an Off-Broadway revival produced by McCollum in 2005). “The sense of community on Broadway was profound and potent,” Abrams says. “So I did theatre all through my schooling. I’ve always loved it and wanted to be involved. I feel very lucky.”
The cast—reprising their performances from the original West End bow—feels lucky, too. At a recent press event, each performer likened the journey to Broadway as some variation of a dream. “We just thought it was another Goes Wrong joke,” Charlie Russell says. “But it’s amazing. He and Kevin are just both really phenomenal producers.” Greg Tannahill adds: “They both really believe in the work. Every step of the way has been a big gamble for everybody who has the money. So for him to step into the arena of unknown actors and writers and take us forward is a big deal.”
Rob Falconer expresses the same disbelief as some of his castmates, saying, “I’m sure in a couple weeks, I’ll be eating breakfast, and all of the sudden I’ll throw up and it’ll sink in. Of all the shows he could have gone for, he went for this.”
Abrams has picked up on this shared sentiment. “There’s a humility in this thing,” he says. “You feel the relationship between cast members. You feel their history starting this play over a pub. I just love feeling like I’m looking now at a group that is having a unique moment. This may be one of the only times they’ll be here and not be known.”
While the tone of this particular play doesn’t exactly align with Abrams’ screen record, actor Nancy Zamit’s key to successful comedy is not far off from tenets of an action franchise. “It’s about danger levels,” she says. “Our show is genuinely pretty dangerous. If it doesn’t look like people are getting hit or falling over, it’s not funny. You have to teeter on an edge; as soon as [audiences] think that something is genuinely going to happen to someone, they stop laughing and they gasp. It’s a fine line.”
In the absence of a Cloverfield monster, a perfectly executed pratfall will provide ample risk.