The government shutdown has hampered many activities for nearly a week in Washington, DC. I hope theatergoers and visitors in the area will be relieved to hear that performance schedules have not been impacted at many theaters and arts centers. One production not to be missed is the London and Broadway smash hit The Play That Goes Wrong, currently at the Kennedy Center as part of a national tour.
In this comedy, actors portray members of a fictional student group, the Cornley University Drama Society, making a hilarious attempt to perform a serious play called The Murder of Haversham Manor. Stage technicians Trevor (Brandon J. Ellis) and Annie (Angela Grovey) do their best to keep the show going as disaster strikes left and right.
The Play That Goes Wrong was co-written by Mischief Theatre company members Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields. Since its debut in the UK, the play has gone on to win numerous awards, including the 2014 WhatsOnStage Best New Comedy and the 2015 Olivier Award for Best New Comedy. Capitalizing on the success of the production, the team created other shows such as The Bank Robbery That Goes Wrong, Peter Pan Goes Wrong, and A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong. Distinguished actors David Suchet (Poirot) and Derek Jacobi (Les Misérables, Last Tango at Halifax) and singers Josh Groban and Kylie Minogue have even joined in on the fun for Christmas specials and cameos at one-off live performances.
Seeing The Play That Goes Wrong live has been on my wish list ever since it first took the UK by storm. I’m really pleased that it came to Broadway in 2017 and then embarked on a U.S. tour. It’s a play that everyone can enjoy because it captures well the mishaps that can befall a live performance. Some of the problems arising, such as missed cues and fumbled lines, are issues many of us have seen at amateur and cute grade school productions or public speaking events. Others are certainly more exaggerated and taken to delightful extremes.
The inviting and fun mood for the play-within-a-play is already in the works when people enter the theater to take their seats. The stage is set with a 1920s interior as vaudeville or fun house music plays over the speakers. The gags start right away, as techies Trevor and Annie put the finishing touches on the door and mantelpieces that just won’t stay in place, hinting at problems coming later. Chris (Evan Alexander Smith), doubling as the drama society’s director and Inspector Carter, walks about greeting audience members before the show.
The gist of The Murder at Haversham Manor is that Charles Haversham (Yaegel T. Welch) appears to have been murdered in his own home. I say “appears” because that’s the first hurdle for the drama society to deal with. The stage lights come on too soon, as the actor playing the dead man is is getting into place, and props keep breaking, making it impossible for Haversham to ever appear a convincing corpse. Inspector Carter starts an investigation, interrogating the household’s members and their visitors: fiancée Florence Colleymore (Jamie Ann Romero), her brother Thomas Colleymore (Peyton Crim), Florence’s lover Cecil Haversham (Ned Noyes), and Perkins (Scott Cote).
Several major problems arise along the way. The leading lady is knocked unconscious, resulting in her hasty replacement with Annie, the shy stage manager. The door, wall decorations, and on-stage elevator never quite fulfill their basic functions satisfactorily, leading to some creative solutions. Props that were supposed to be on stage are missing, forcing actors to resort to some not-so-creative ideas. The best stage problem is the second level that just doesn’t have enough support under it, eliciting the most gasps and laughs from the audience. But these unfortunate circumstances merely scratch the surface of the hilarity that ensues.
There were two standout actors at the performance I attended. Scott Cote is very endearing as Perkins, winning audiences over as he mispronounced façade with a hard “c” instead of the soft “c” and said his stage directions aloud. My favorite gag is when he lights a cigarette and then discards his match into the umbrella stand, causing quite a large fire. Ned Noyes is also a crowd-pleaser as a character who has no chemistry whatsoever with the leading lady. His best segment is his portrayal of his other character, the gardener, who has to pretend to rein in an unruly dog named Winston because, regrettably, the dog was never found before the show. The tension he applies to the empty leash and chain is spot-on, with exaggerated movements, and complete with an accompanying dog bark.
Overall, The Play That Goes Wrong has only two weaknesses. The first concerns the improvised moments. The problem was painfully clear when actors resorted to ad libs such as “Stop laughing” and “You would never behave this way at Miss Saigon,” the latter referencing the fact that Miss Saigon was in fact being performed next door in the Kennedy Center Opera House. Lines like those garnered laughs but also threw off some of the play’s momentum just to please a couple of attendees in the front rows. In contrast, maintaining the script’s tight pace and high energy most of the time, the production builds jokes and stunts in a delightful and engaging fashion.
The second minor issue occurs towards the very end when the solution to the mystery is revealed. It’s difficult to catch everything in the hurried explanation, if anyone still wanted to know how Murder at Haversham Manor was supposed to be resolved. On the other hand, The Play That Goes Wrong was never really about the murder mystery in the first place. Rather the focus has always been the commotion that ensues both on and off-stage in a crumbling fake play, especially by the time a final confrontation ensues between the two ladies over the leading-lady role.
A strong ensemble cast with precise attention to comic timing contributes to a generally brilliant production. Everyone can come away from the theater with a moment they love dearly and had a great bellyaching laugh over. This play serves as a good reminder that actors and stage crew are only human after all, and the stakes can be high for the show to go on.
The Play That Goes Wrong runs through January 6, 2019 at the Kennedy Center. Visit the Kennedy Center’s website, the box office in person, or dial (202) 467-4600 to obtain tickets. Click here for more information about the government shutdown. Even though performances are still on as scheduled, certain entrances or parts of the complex may be closed off to the public.