John Long is no stranger to comedy. He’s played King Louis the 13th in The Three Musketeers; Craig, the miserly theater operations manager, in Laughing Stock; and Francis Henshall, a man who finds himself juggling two jobs at the same time, in One Man, Two Guvnors. Now he makes his FST debut in The Play That Goes Wrong, a Tony and Olivier Award-winning comedy that’s been produced in over 35 countries and seen by millions of people.
We sat down with John to talk about the challenges of performing in The Play That Goes Wrong, why the play is so popular, and what makes his character, Robert Grove, tick.
You’ve previously performed in productions that require impeccable comedic timing and quite a bit of physical comedy. How did your experience with these shows prepare you for this production?
I have been lucky to play some great comedic roles in my career, like Francis in One Man, Two Guvnors and Detective Fix in Around the World in 80 Days. In my experience with comedy, the audience often becomes another scene partner. As an actor, you’re asking yourself, “What are they finding funny night to night? What are they not? Are they an intellectual humor crowd, or do they find physical comedy more compelling?”
What’s unique with The Play That Goes Wrong is the set becomes a scene partner as well. Much of the comedy comes from things that, aptly, go wrong and a lot of those things are inanimate objects. So, in addition to listening and reacting to the audience, this play forces us to react to the set as it works (or doesn’t) around us. That’s been one of the biggest challenges— staying in tune with each other, the audience, and the set night after night, since no two performances will ever be the same.
In The Play That Goes Wrong, you play Robert Grove, an amateur actor playing the role of Thomas Colleymoore in “The Murder at Haversham Manor.” How would you describe Robert and his journey over the course of the play?
Robert very much wanted to be the director of the West Palmetto Drama Society, but Chris was elected over him. I don’t think Robert chose this production, but he’s desperate to be a “good actor,” even though I don’t think he exactly knows how to achieve it. As things go a bit awry, Robert is constantly evaluating the show on how he thinks it’s going for him. He doesn’t really take in or listen to his scene partners, which, of course, is the exact opposite of what good acting relies on. As “The Murder of Haversham Manor” progresses, I think Robert starts to see that he needs his scene partners more than he realizes, and he goes on a bit of a journey about what constitutes good acting.
The Play That Goes Wrong has become an international comedic sensation. Why do you think it is so popular, especially across so many countries and cultures?
This play is so popular across languages and cultures because we all can relate to things not going the way that they are supposed to. Whether it’s a Power Point presentation with a missing slide, a realtor struggling to open the door lock of a new listing, or the lid of your Starbucks popping off just before you take a sip… that’s life. It’s usually mortifying when it happens to you, but when it happens to someone else, it’s funny and universal. This play is full doors and props that don’t cooperate, and that’s funny to us as humans, because, although we may not admit it, we have all been there.
What did you most enjoy figuring out during the rehearsal process for The Play That Goes Wrong?
The biggest challenge in rehearsal was finding the funny in the props and pieces of set that “go wrong.” It’s one thing if something falls. It’s another if something falls and you have to acknowledge it, put it back, and pretend like no one saw a thing. The “soldier on” and “the show must go on” mottos both get tested in this production, and in rehearsals we had to find that.
There were also some physical gags that, when I initially saw the show, I wasn’t sure how they did it. But our director, Bruce Jordan, worked with the entire cast to figure out just how someone gets hit safely by this or that.