Queen City Nerve

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‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ Adheres to a Controlled Chaos
A method to the mayhem

By Perry Tannenbaum

November 25, 2019

While a clean, blooper-less run is often the mark of a good play, but such is not the case for The Play That Goes Wrong, which will run at Knight Theater through Dec. 1.

The barrage of bloopers by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields — who have also colluded on Peter Pan Goes Wrong and The Nativity Goes Wrong — often had me in stitches and left me slightly weak with laughter by the time I exited on opening night. It was almost merciful that I found some of the shtick repetitious or predictable, allowing me to catch my breath. Others leaving the theater were giddier than I about the madcap performances, pratfalls and hambone hijinks.

However, I also noted traces of stone-faced disgruntlement from folks here and there in the crowd, redoubled perhaps by not being able to share in the euphoria surrounding them. Bloopers just may not be so damn funny to everyone, I concluded. Upon further reflection, I hedged my diagnosis: Maybe bloopers are so ubiquitous that people need a respite from all those we succumb to daily as clickbait on Facebook and Twitter, besides all those readily available on TV and in movie houses.

Cast members from ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ wonder what went wrong. (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

Blooper burnout isn’t pervasive, that’s for sure. Hell, it’s obvious that the Lewis-Sayer-Shields team has made a franchise out of them!

So let me pause to observe how artfully crafted — and expertly engineered — the bloopers we enjoy in The Play That Goes Wrong really are, which may be a gentle way to remind folks, giddy and disgruntled alike, that they are not really bloopers at all.

As the other plays created on this same template imply, namely Pan and The Nativity, the Broadway hit making its touring stop at the Knight also has a storyline, a play-within-a-play called The Murder at Haversham Manor — in a production from the fictional Cornley University Drama Society.

That’s one way to enter the stage. (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

Even before this epic fiasco begins, warning signals are firing onstage and in the hall. One stagehand scurries somewhat frantically up and down the aisles, another — helped by an actor and a recruited audience member — unsuccessfully attempts a last-minute fix of the scenery, and a third issues a warning for audience members to watch out for a chandelier, affixed somewhere with duct tape, that might fall.

Inauspicious, to say the least.

Formality briefly takes over and the curtain goes down as the University emcee makes his sometimes informative, sometimes apologetic opening remarks. Regrets are proffered for budget constraints that resulted in such economies as Two Sisters and Cat. Then the curtain went up, ending the brief spell of semi-competence. Our murder victim, Charles Haversham, hasn’t quite finished draping himself over the settee.

A parade of characters — suspects all — enters the scene, including Haversham’s fiancée, Haversham’s brother, Haversham’s butler, the fiancée’s brother and Inspector Carter. Consulting your faux Haversham Manor program, a feature I fondly remember from Noises Off, you can see that the cool and composed Chris Bean is portraying the Inspector and directing the show. Not coincidentally, Bean has previously starred at Cornley as Hamlet in Hamlet, Macbeth in Macbeth, and Othello in Othello.

Sadly, the polished actor has rashly ventured beyond his skills behind the scenes, most disastrously in designing the scenery and making the props. A steady blizzard of technical screwups whips through and inundates the production from the moment an actor makes his first entrance. The front door, which a stagehand and actor struggled to close throughout the pre-show, now will not open. The mantel that couldn’t be affixed over the fireplace needs to be used. The stretcher to gracefully remove the corpse shreds in two.

Sometimes the clumsiness of the actors compounds the flimsiness and unreliability of the set. When a door suddenly does swing open, one of the co-stars is knocked unconscious. The beam holding up the second-story study keeps colliding with another clumsy actor, and the Bean-constructed elevator to the study proves ill-designed for repeated use — and much, much more.

By the time we reach intermission at Cornley, an insurance adjuster would not be amiss. And by the time Habersham Manor concludes, a delegation from FEMA ought to be dispatched.

Obviously, the real scenic designer who engineered everything that so reliably “goes wrong” in Goes Wrong — an apocalyptic demolition that must be swept up, propped up and rebuilt for every new performance — has created an awesome and supremely frivolous masterwork. Of course, Nigel Hook took home the Drama Desk and Tony Awards for scenic design in 2017. Slam-dunk decisions as far as I’m concerned.

As casualties and destruction mount, expect those black-clad stagehands to jump into the breach, further escalating the mayhem — and the acting incompetence. Remedies can often be as zany as the catastrophes that prompt them. What can go wrong usually does.

Comparisons are inevitably made between Goes Wrong and Noises Off, a Michael Frayn concoction that must be custom-built on a revolving stage. That mammoth turntable shows us backstage mishaps, misunderstandings and antagonisms that unfold in a touring production of a bad farce.

Sandwiched around the incompetence and venom that flow freely in the middle act backstage are frontal views of the two-story set where the farce unfolds. Act 1 of Noises Off shows us a belated and ominous dress rehearsal, and in Act 3, we watch the string of disasters that result at a performance months later when the troupe’s flaws and hostilities have fully fermented.

A simpler parallel can be drawn between the Goes Wrong franchise and the chain of “abridged” comedies begun with The Complete Works of Wm Shakespeare (abridged). The writers who formed Mischief Theatre, the company that produces Goes Wrong, wrote the travesty for themselves to star in — just like the founding trio of the Reduced Shakespeare Company who wrote their medleys of shticks for themselves to ham up.

(Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

Lewis, Sayer and Shields made it far harder on themselves when they wowed London and then starred in their own show on Broadway, as you’ll readily see when you watch their touring replacements. Skirting — or succumbing to — the disasters that befall The Play That Goes Wrong requires quick reflexes and considerable physical prowess, especially when segments of Habersham Manor begin to resemble the sinking Titanic.

Standouts include Adam Petherbridge as Cecil Haversham, the victim’s brother and the fiancée’s secret lover, perpetually genial, clumsy, theatrically amateurish and incurably hambone. Nor could I help but admire the ruffled suavity of Chris Lanceley as the beleaguered Bean, the relatively calm eye of the storm as the Inspector, trying simultaneously to get his investigation and his production on track.

The women draw some of the most challenging physical demands. Jacqueline Jarrold as Florence Colleymore, Habersham’s two-timing fiancée, must literally fight for her role when Bianca Horn, as stage-struck stage manager Annie, steals her costume and takes over. We get some wild World Wide Wrestling action when these two tigresses tangle, not a mere catfight.

Others you’re likely to savor are Jason Bowen as the lackadaisical lighting and sound operator, Trevor, who seems to care more about his boxed set of Duran Duran than Habersham Manor, and Todd Buonopane as the sorry thespian who portrays Perkins, the dignified butler. On multiple occasions, Perkins’ mispronunciations stop the show, and in one deadly instance, Buonopane’s memory lapse throws “Habersham Manor” spinning into an endless tape loop. He’s almost as bad as Petherbridge, which is very good.

Enjoy the silly, juvenile comedy — and the marvelously sophisticated stagecraft. A couple of things do magically go right in The Play That Goes Wrong, adding some delightful wrinkles.

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