CEDAR CITY — Whether it was a high school production of Oklahoma! or your church’s last Christmas pageant, it is a truth universally acknowledged that bad community theatre, like death, comes for us all. And, believe me, as lifelong theatre patron and participant I have faced that reaper a number of times. The Play That Goes Wrong, created by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields, attempts to redeem all past theatre wrongs by reverse engineering every possible mishap and teasing it out for maximum comedic effect. Wrong devises a play within a play, in the style of Noises Off!, as an homage to all those who, against all odds, insist that the show must go on.
To kick things off, Rhett Guter (playing Chris, the pompous director of the play), welcomes the audience to the opening night of the Cornley Drama Society’s latest and greatest production of (the fictional) Murder at Haversham Manor. Behind him a harried stage manager and gum-smacking technical director enlist the help of an audience member to make final repairs to the set. Chris assures the audience that tonight be an improvement on previous Cornley productions such as Guy and Dolls or James, Where is your Peach? Guter’s skills as a charmer are on full display throughout the performance as he chatters with and and chastises the audience throughout the show.
Indeed, the Cornley cast and crew is made up of the finest Utah Shakespeare Festival talents, including Melinda Parrett as ambitious stage manager Annie, and Chris Mixon as Dennis, an actor who struggles with his lines. Each actor on stage represents a troupe familiar to the theatre world. There is Robert, the improviser (played by Blake Henri in a fantastic kilt), Sandra the diva (played by Nazlah Black), and Max the first timer who cannot stop pandering to his fans (played by Jim Poulos). The cast of eight offers up a masterclass in timing and physical comedy. Pratfalls, spit takes, and audience interaction abounds.
Director Geoffrey Kent has worked each beat of the action to within an inch of its life to tease out every possible laugh from the appreciative crowd. Doors slam or get stuck — whichever is less helpful to the Cornley Drama Society’s actors in the moment. Every prop is misplaced or broken. Entrances are missed or jumped, and lines go in circles. The expert technical skill of this ensemble is hard to overstate. Not only are they working together like the mechanical pieces of a clock to hit every planned bit of zaniness, but they each demonstrate their ability to adjust to one another and audience reactions keeping the jokes sharp. I would love to return and see how this production develops over the next several months. As blunder after blunder derails the Manor murder mystery (the play within the play), the cast and crew must join forces to keep the show moving.
As I let out one belly laugh after another, I could not help dreading the day I see this farce attempted by a school or community group that overestimates their ability to get it right. Indeed, maintaining the required frenetic pace is the show’s main challenge. Generating a laugh approximately every 10 seconds takes the utmost focus and technical skill from cast and crew. Even here, with a team of enormous talent, I found that my ability to fully immerse myself in the humor ebbed and flowed as the show progressed. The action grows so outlandish before the intermission and in the final 20 minutes I certainly lost the plot and was no longer clear on the specifics motivating every insane characters choice I was seeing. All that hardly mattered to the overall impact, but it shows the true level of precision required to pull off this level of comedy.
Jason Lajka‘s set is superbly fitted to the intense demands of this script. Everything from the length of the telephone cord, the height of the windows and the floor supports must be crafted with exquisite detail, especially beacuse this production will run for three months. A special shoutout should be offered to Festival’s props director Benjamin Homan and his team, who have created this gem and will now ensure that it runs smoothly for more than 50 performances.
Finally, I appreciated the special final bow at the end of this production that is offered by the full backstage crew who are clearly working with extreme precision to keep this production moving smoothly and safely. If nothing else, The Play That Goes Wrong certainly highlights just how much theatre lovers owe to skills and talents of the people wearing black who are blessedly always there, but just out of sight.