Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Cincinnati

The Play That Goes Wrong
Cincinnati Shakespeare Company
Review by Rick Pender | Season Schedule

The Cast
Photo by Mikki Schaffner
Has Cincinnati Shakespeare Company lost its way and wandered into the wilderness of 21st-century plays? I'm quick to answer that with a big fat "NO." Their current production of The Play That Goes Wrong by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields has only been around for a decade, but it's already a full-fledged, award-winning classic. The over-the-top farce is a nonstop satire of amateur theatrics as well as a loving poke at a tried-and-true melodramatic whodunit, the silly, made-up tale of The Murder at Haversham Manor.

According to the formal dramatis personae provided in the production's program, the melodrama's action "takes place in Charles's private rooms at Haversham Manor on the evening of Charles and Florence's engagement party, Winter 1922." Of course, what we're witnessing is the wholly unfortunate revival of that (fictional) chestnut by the Cornley Drama Society, a community theatre company that selects shows based on having the number of roles that matches their membership. Their track record, described by first-time "director" Chris Bean (Jeremy Dubin), lays a totally shaky foundation for what follows.

In fact, even before this show gets started, the Cincy Shakes audience is drawn into assisting the not-very-competent crew readying the stage for the show. A "Crew Dude" (Jared Earland) is searching for something under seats in the auditorium. Stage Manager Trevor (Darnell Pierre Benjamin) is hunting for his boxed set of Duran Duran hits and doing some last minute repairs of the stage floor. Hapless stagehand Annie (Candice Handy) is trying to reattach a cranky falling mantel before the action begins. They recruit innocent audience members to come onstage to lend a hand with repairs or sweeping. It's a prelude to the carefully choreographed chaos to follow as the story gets under way.

Charles (Geoffrey Warren Barnes II) is the murder victim laid out on a chaise lounge. The actor playing him is obviously none too dead. He's surrounded by Charles's best friend Thomas (Billy Chace), Florence (Kelly Mengelkoch), John's vampy fiancée and Thomas's sister, and Perkins (Justin McCombs), Haversham's dithering longtime butler. They are mourning the lord of the manor's passing, but it's clear that there are numerous theories about what has happened. Charles's brother Cecil (Matthew Lewis Johnson) enters, and we quickly understand he's having an affair with Florence. A none-too-competent police Inspector Harris (Dubin) shows up to solve the murder, but before long Cecil is also dead, and everyone becomes a suspect.

All of this complicated tale is enacted by the hammiest of amateur actors, delightfully portrayed by Cincy Shakes' veteran professionals who are clearly having a grand time overacting. Dubin is a master of exasperation, and Johnson (who is resurrected as the simple-minded gardener) never misses a chance to invent silly gestures and play to the audience–who wholly buy into the tomfoolery onstage. Mengelkoch spends much of her time posing seductively and clinging amorously to Johnson. McCombs, an accomplished physical comedian, brings his comic skills to the put-upon servant. As the set gradually self-destructs, Chace's character's efforts to hold things together and keep things moving are an engine of humor.

The enacted stagehands add another dimension. Handy's Annie fights a losing battle with cranky set pieces and missing props, and when Mengelkoch's character is knocked unconscious, Handy's awkward forced performance slowly evolves from fear to zeal. Benjamin's stage manager spends time running to his control board at the rear of the auditorium, where he often forgets to turn off his stage mike, and then hopping backstage or onstage in vain efforts to get things back on course.

All these layers of humor have been carefully orchestrated by director Brian Isaac Phillips. Despite the confusion perhaps reflected by my words describing the action, he has smartly assembled the high-speed silliness to keep the story rolling and the outcomes inevitable. In fact, by the middle of the second act, the opening night audience was frequently cheering on the action. Credit also to fight choreographer Gina Ceremele-Mechley who has put together some deliriously silly bits of combat, especially an inept fencing duel that deteriorates into mime as the weapons break down and eventually disappear altogether. Scenic designer Samantha Reno's self-destructing set, given a look that's intentionally amateurish, is as much a character as any of the cast members.

By the way, the original London production of this show won a 2015 Olivier Award for the season's best new comedy. You can be assured that if something in The Play That Goes Wrong is intended to misfire, it will do so and with comic assurance. In fact, everything about Cincy Shakes' production goes right–it's an entertaining evening of light summer entertainment.

The Play That Goes Wrong runs through June 16, 2024, at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, Otto M. Budig Theatre, 1195 Elm Street (adjacent to Washington Park in Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine neighborhood), Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, please visit or call 513-381-2273.