Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
We are welcomed in a curtain speech from Chris Bean, earnest president of the Cornley University Drama Societyalso their director, set and costume designer, dramaturg, dialect and voice coach and box office manager. They are pleased to present is the 1920s thriller The Murder at Haversham Manor, a send-up of such Agatha Christie fare as The Mousetrap. The play within this play begins with a murder, and involves the local inspector (a snowstorm keeping away the more professional agents) trying to narrow down the suspects, which basically include everyone on site: the murder victim's brother, his fiancée Florence and her brother, and the faithful butler Perkins. Not under suspicion is the gardener, this being his day off.
The drama around who did it and how and why is very well constructed, as these affairs go, but it is hardly the point of The Play That Goes Wrong. The point is that everything goes wrong in the production of The Murder at Haversham Manor. Mantels and paintings fall off walls, doors slam into the actors, cues are missed, entrances are mangled by doors that have been locked, words are mispronounced, props are misplacedthe latter leading to having to replace a decanter of whiskey with paint thinner which cast members must repeatedly drink up (and then utter such inanities, after spitting all over the stage, as "Good God, I needed that!").
There are endless variations of these gags and routines, including an inspired bit about a phone cord that must be made to stretch clear across the stage. When the actress portraying Florence is knocked out cold, the stage manager, who clearly has no acting chops, is called to fill in. When she also gets knocked out, they resort to the sound/light guy, and finally a grandfather clock becomes the replacement in the role of Florence. Lest you feel I am giving away the funny parts, don't worry. The entire play is the funny part. This includes poor Drama Society president Chris Bean's struggle to make serious drama out of this disaster, lecturing the audience that we ought not to be laughing. Bet you can guess how that works out.
In truth, the star of The Play That Goes Wrong is the astonishing set, designed by Nigel Hook, who deservedly won the 2017 Best Scenic Design of a Play Tony Award for this marvel. Creating a set in which every element is designed to malfunction, and to do so in ways that provoke waves of laughter, is no small achievement. Making sure that all of these things occur at precisely the right time, and that the actors are in the right places when they do, delivering the barrage of dialogue with timing aimed at making it as funny as possible, is the accomplishment of director Matt DiCarlo, based upon the Broadway staging by Mark Bell. Those fellows certainly earn their pay!
The Play That Goes Wrong had humble origins, created by a British troupe called Mischief Theatre, spawned from the fertile minds of three company's members, Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, who also acted in the premiere production at a fringe theater in London in 2012. After a successful tour around England, the play opened in the West End in 2014, with Lewis, Sayer and Shields still on board, where it won the 2015 Olivier Award for Best Comedy. The original West End cast, still including the three playwrights, crossed the pond with the play when it opened on Broadway in spring 2017. There it ran a year and a half (a very lengthy run for a non-musical these days). It closed January, 2019, but re-opened in February on an Off-Broadway stage, continuing to give New York theatergoers a chance to give their laugh muscles an aerobic workout.
The ensemble cast in the national tour is terrific, with the adroit timing necessary to bring this affair off, down to a T. Scott Cote as the actor Dennis, playing the part of Perkins, captures the unflappable deadpan fealty of a steadfast butler. Peyton Crim plays the actor Robert, in the part of Thomas, his deep, resonant voice and large frame imbuing the character with the earnestness of a dependable best friend and protective brother. Evan Alexander Smith, playing director Chris Bean and, in the play-within-a-play, Inspector Carter, makes sincerity into an art form, while Ned Noyes as Max, as Cecil, offers a campily spry picture of a fellow who, back in the day, might have been described as "light in the loafers." That's half the cast, and take my word for it, the others all fare just as well, even if their characters have less distinction.
Along with the fun house of a set, the costumes designed by Roberto Surace and lighting by Ric Mountjoy are spot on. I feel like special acknowledgment should go to the stage crew charged with re-assembling the set, which lies in shambles by the final curtain, to be whole again for the next performance, but their names are omitted from the program. Where is justice?
The Play That Goes Wrong will remind many of that great comedy of backstage and onstage calamity, Noises Off. They indeed have things in common, but where the latter draws a good share of its humor from the personalities of, and relationships among, the actors and crew staging their play-within-a-play Nothing On, nothing of so deep a construction is on tap in The Play That Goes Wrong. Rather, it is purely and simply about mining laughs out of malfunction and human error. I believe it is the first non-musical play I have seen in a long time that does not, in some manner, reflect upon the current political or societal moment. What a welcome break!
Leaving the theater, I heard one woman who appeared to be in her sixties say to her same-aged companion, "I missed some of the dialogue with so much laughing all the time," to which the other replied "I know, but I don't think it mattered, it was mostly physical humor. The fact is, the dialogue as written is not really funny by itself. What makes it funnyhilarious, trulyis the way it is played and the way it triggers and meshes with the implosions of the set. If you are of a mind that when you go to a play, you don't want to miss a word, you might want to skip The Play That Goes Wrong. But if you want to laugh heartily, with no pressure to think deep thoughts other than how good you feel afterwards, this will be your cup of teahold the paint thinner.
The Play That Goes Wrong, through May 12, 2019, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $39.00 - $135.00*. Student/Educator rush, two tickets per valid ID, $25.00 per ticket, cash only, two hours before showtime, subject to availability. For ticket information call 800-982-2787 or visit hennepintheatretrust.org. For more information on the tour, visit theplaythatgoeswrong.com.
Playwrights: Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields; Director: Matt DiCarlo; Original Broadway Direction: Mark Bell; Scenic Design: Nigel Hook; Costume Design: Roberto Surace; Lighting Design: Ric Mountjoy; Sound Design: Andrew Johnson; Original Music: Rob Falconer; Production Stage Manager: Jeff Norman
Cast: Scott Cote (Dennis - as Perkins), Peyton Crim (Robert - as Thomas Colleymoore), Brandon J. Ellis (Trevor - as Lighting and Sound Operator), Angela Grovey (Annie - as Stage Manager), Ned Noyes (Max - as Cecil Haversham), Jamie Ann Romero (Sandra - as Florence Colleymoore), Evan Alexander Smith (Chris Bean - as Inspector Carter and the Director), Yaegel T. Welch (Jonathan - as Charles Haversham).