Review: How funny is ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’? Depends on your appetite for pranks and pratfalls
“The Play That Goes Wrong,” a backstage burlesque bursting with slapstick, sums itself up in its title.
A troupe of actors at a ragtag company decides to present “The Murder at Haversham Manor,” and not a single moment goes according to plan. The set, the props, the lighting and the sound thwart the performers at every turn. Eventually, a few of these semi-amateur thespians, demoralized by disaster, go rogue.
It’s a stage manager’s worst nightmare — and an audience’s cue for laughter. Indeed, not since Bottom and the other “rude mechanicals” staged “the most lamentable comedy and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe” in honor of the royal nuptials in William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” has a group of actors bungled the job to such risible effect.
This Mischief Theatre production, stopping at the Ahmanson Theatre (through Aug. 11) on its national tour, began at a pub theater in London before moving to the West End and eventually Broadway. A comedy of blunders with a fringe-theater soul, the show might seem trivial for such a prodigious venue, but the public’s appetite for silliness appears to be in direct proportion to the gravity of the times. Goofy giggles is sometimes all anyone can handle.
Even before the play begins, the backstage crew is scurrying around like cruise ship workers trying to conceal a norovirus outbreak. The mantelpiece, among other crucial set pieces, has come undone. Trevor (Brandon J. Ellis), the beefy stage manager, seems more concerned with locating his Duran Duran CD box set than making sure the drawing room door opens. (Nigel Hook’s scenic design engineers every catastrophe imaginable and a few that are unimaginable.)
Chris (Evan Alexander Smith), the director of this hapless Cornley University Drama Society presentation, delivers a curtain speech in plummy tones that’s meant to distract the audience from the chaos already engulfing the production. But his apology to those affected by the box-office mishap, which led ticket buyers to believe they would be seeing “Hamilton” instead of the hoary murder mystery that’s about to get underway, tips us off that gremlins are running the show.
It’s not just the scenic elements that won’t cooperate. The ensemble compounds fiasco with ineptitude. Corpses refuse to lie still. Mispronunciations run rife. Acting styles, if you can dignify these bungling hams with that term, clash. Lines are accidentally repeated, trapping cast members in a loop.
Written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, “The Play That Goes Wrong” doesn’t reach for the heights of Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off,” the ne plus ultra of backstage farces. The playwriting is more mechanical, organized around a series of snafus that are made worse by the counterintuitive solutions brought to bear.
The physical comedy requires the cast members to boomerang around the set with lunatic abandon. Climbing, leaping, slipping into enclosed spaces, dangling out of windows, smashing to the floor, ingeniously employing every limb to hold up wall hangings while answering a telephone — the performances are a composite of gymnastics, air-traffic control and over-the-top acting.
This tour production, directed by Matt DiCarlo (from the original Broadway direction by Mark Bell), is machine-like. The breakneck staging is a logistical miracle, but the characterizations lack the clumsy human vitality that made Richard Bean’s “One Man, Two Guvnors” so unforgettably hilarious on Broadway.
“The Play That Goes Wrong” amuses with its pranks and pratfalls, especially for those whose brains are sitting under an umbrella on the beach. But the delight becomes something of a chore as the antics stretch on to the point that the mystery of the whodunit becomes a tiresome afterthought. Still, there’s no denying the hilarity of a troupe that unfailingly turns can-do into can-don’t.
‘The Play That Goes Wrong’
Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays; ends Aug 11 (call for exceptions)
Tickets: $30-$135 (subject to change)
Information: (213) 972-4400 or centertheatregroup.org
Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes (including intermission)
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