Theater review: The Play That Goes Wrong at the Peace Center
Audiences in search of two-plus hours of steady laughter need look no farther than the national tour of The Play That Goes Wrong, in residency at the Peace Center through Sunday, Oct. 7.
Written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, the London and Broadway hit centers on opening night of the fictitious The Murder at Haversham Manor by the likewise make-believe Cornley University Drama Society. The inspired set-up involves talented actors playing not-so-skilled ones and lends itself to plentiful comedy both “behind the scenes” and during this ramshackle production within a production that adheres to Murphy’s Law to glorious ends — for those in the crowd, at least.
Starting with cheeky pre-show entertainment courtesy of lighting and sound operator Trevor (Brandon J. Ellis), tech colleague Annie (Angela Grovey) and other crew members prepping the doomed set, The Play That Goes Wrong delightfully stays the course as cocksure director “Chris Bean” (Evan Alexander Smith) introduces the murder mystery, which he views as an important work of modern theatre.
With Trevor spending most of the show spotlit in a second-story theater box, occasionally behaving unprofessionally, The Murder at Haversham Manor gets underway with the discovery of the corpse of Charles Haversham (Yaegel T. Welch) — a farce from the start, seeing as the first glimpse of actor playing him, one “Jonathan Harris,” is one where he’s very much alive, and for various reasons he’s unable to stay deceased.
As other characters enter the wobbly set, the destruction of which is carefully choreographed by scenic designer Nigel Hook, items fall off the walls, props are damaged and/or find new uses, lines are repeated or spoken out of order, the tech crew makes unexpected appearances — and the cast does its amusing best to keep up.
An absolute delight under the direction of Matt DiCarlo, the chemistry-rich cast — in real life, not so much the play within the play — includes “Robert Grove” as Thomas Colleymoore (Peyton Crim), hilariously funneled through the bombast of a great Shakespearean character; servant Perkins (Scott Cote), whose portrayer “Denny Tyde” writes words he has trouble pronouncing on his palm (a trick that still doesn’t help); and Florence Colleymoore (Jamie Ann Romero), a pseudo-flapper prone to actions that suggest actress “Sandra Wilkinson” may have experience as a stripper.
While all are thoroughly funny, Ned Noyes rises above the ensemble as “Max Bennett,” who regularly vamps while playing Cecil Haversham, earns laughs and applause for his amateur efforts, acknowledges the response and — like a child encouraged by noise from incredulous adults — cranks up his antics. “Bean” also gets to show off his acting skills as Inspector Carter, and his on-stage frustrations with his cast (and sometimes the audience) are joyful to witness.
Like any great comedy, however, not all of the gags work. A sound and lighting effect that’s enacted whenever a certain word is dramatically uttered has a shelf life of maybe two uses, not upwards of 10, and a…let’s say “rivalry” between two actors in the final act goes on way too long, yet still offers scattered entertainment.
Along with the nimble writing, the organized chaos of the production compensates for such minor misfires with the cast’s gifts for physical comedy. Many actors sustain convincing blows to the head and a few must adapt to crumbling corners of the set. In turn, some become incapacitated, prompting others to step in to varying degrees of success that may or may not go to their heads.
Adding to the theatrical experience are The Play That Goes Wrong’s meta elements, namely several examples of audience participation that would seemingly lend themselves to different outcomes in each performance. “Bean” also got in one particularly sly dig at the Greenville audience on opening night and it would be interesting to see if it’s repeated or changed in subsequence shows.
The Play That Goes Wrong runs Wednesday-Sunday through Oct. 7. For showtimes and tickets, visit www.peacecenter.org
(Photos by by Jeremy Daniel, courtesy of the Peace Center)