CENTERVILLE — When the world is falling apart, there is a perverse comfort in watching things smash in a safe, contained environment and letting yourself laugh as you cringe. The Play That Goes Wrong was written in 2012 by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields. It has picked up a Tony, a Drama Desk Award, and a Laurence Olivier Award, and it really does live up to the hype. I can’t tell you about all the things that go wrong because that would spoil the fun the farce relies on by the audience not knowing or anticipating the next mishap. It is easier to just say it was one of the silliest shows I have ever seen and had me laughing all night.
The premise for the show is that the fictitious Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society is putting on a play of The Murder at Haversham Manor, which is a clichéd murder mystery play in the vein of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. Starting from the pre-show, this play follows Murphy’s Law: anything that can go wrong will go wrong. The show has a lot of slapstick, Three Stooges-type humor which my son 8-year-old loved, and left the adults in fits of juvenile giggling as well. However, physical humor is not the only source of laughter. Theatre lovers will enjoy seeing acting quirks and technical gaffs exaggerated to epic proportions as props are misplaces, lines forgotten, actors panic and set pieces collapse.
Before the play begins, the audience sees Annie (played by Jenni Cooper) and Trevor (played by Jacob Sommer) rushing about with the last-minute fixes before the lights come up. This tech crew is funny and probably have the most character development, as they scramble to make sure that the show goes on. Both characters get whisked into the play and Annie, in particular, finds a passion for acting.
The play officially opens with a monologue delivered by Michael Gardner, who plays the director of the play within the play and will act as Inspector Carter in The Murder at Haversham Manner. Gardner is hilarious in this role. I love the updates to his monologue that reference current events, as it sets tone for the night as he talks about how excited he is for tonight’s show of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society. Previous productions of the company have struggled with budget and casting issues in the past, but he seems really optimistic about tonight’s show.
Starting the play within the play is the character of Charles Haversham, played by Blake London, who enters and immediately dies on stage. London is hilariously tasked with playing dead for a lot of the show and slayed as a corpse that just can’t stay dead with all the chaos around him.
Any 1920s murder mystery is going to have a seductress, and the lady in red is Florence Colleymoore (played by Amanda Morgan). Morgan has legs for days and begins as a beautiful stereotype, but the ladies of the show are not sidelined from all the physical humor. Westfall’s direction has both Cooper and Morgan doing just as much slapstick as the boys, and both women rise to the occasion and earn the laughs. Both Morgan and Cooper are impressive leading ladies.
Of course, what British manor is complete without a Butler? Mitchell Gibb plays Perkins the butler, who has to keep checking his notes for all the hard words in the script. Rounding out the small cast is Tyler Clawson, who plays Cecil Haversham and Arthur. Clawson plays up overacting and gesturing in a way that anyone who has been to a bad play can laugh heartily about.
Some of the few technical elements in The Play That Goes Wrong that were incredible. Technical director Derek Walden and scenic change artists Cynthia Klumpp have made a set that is as much a character in the show as the people. The technical staff have many props and elements that have to be perfectly right in order for the actors to make them go wrong “correctly,” and I was very impressed with all of them. Stunt choreographer Justin Lee‘s fight choreography keeps the actors safe while making it look like they are severely hurt in a show with a great deal of slapstick. (A few of the “injuries” were not as tight as they could be from where I was sitting, such as when an actor’s hand is supposed to be stepped on, but most are really well done.) The sound and lighting are designed by Jordan Fowler are fun and enhance the show with the best “wrong” cues. All of the elements come together nicely under director Jennifer J. Westfall, who uses the space and her actors to their limits to squeeze ever last joke to the breaking point.
Because I have never seen The Play That Goes Wrong before, I was a little worried about taking my 8-year-old son because I thought that the British humor might be too difficult, but my fears were quickly laid to rest. The actors do use British accents, which are consistent throughout and very clear. But while there are some deeper jokes, most of the night is delightfully shallow and sidesplitting entertainment for all ages. If laughter is the best medicine, The Play That Goes Wrong delivers a double dose to cure all your woes.