Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photo by Jeremy Daniel.
The program for The Play That Goes Wrong, which is as funny as the play itself, contains a helpful list of 32 words to use and not to use when writing about the play. Among the words to use are: (1) awesome, (2) inspiring, (3) tasteful, (4) tasty, and (5) “like a warm bath.” Among those not to use are (6) excreting, (7) impotent, (8) worthless, (9) perspiring, (10) tasteless, (11) vomit, (12) icky and (13) eek. I accept this as a challenge: I have every intention of using all of the (14) lovely words on both lists during the course of my review of this utterly hilarious production. (I’ll leave it to you to guess which words go on which list.)
The conceit of The Play That Goes Wrong is that a college theatre troupe, the Cornley University Drama Society, is putting on a 20s-style murder mystery called The Murder at Haversham Manor when (as you’d guess from the title) every (15) awful thing that could possibly go wrong does so. Players are accidentally knocked unconscious. A supposedly dead character can’t seem to stay still. “Whiskey” is accidentally replaced with paint thinner. (I lost track of the spit-takes here, but the floor must have been very slippery, as it was anything but (16) dry after the first act.) The sound operator (Brandon J. Ellis) isn’t paying attention to cues (and he’s lost his precious Duran Duran CD, which might be even worse). The stage manager (Angela Grovey) can’t get the mantle to stay on the fireplace. Props fall off walls. Parts of the set collapse. But, no matter what happens around or to them, the brave souls of the decidedly (17) amateurish Drama Society apparently believe in the motto “The show must go on,” and on it goes despite more (18) errors than it’s possible to count.
All of this insanity is presented by a thoroughly (19) professional cast and crew. Every member of the cast is essentially playing two roles: the character in the murder mystery and the “actor” playing that character. [It’s (20) important to read your program for this one: wonderfully comic bios are provided for the “actors” the cast is portraying; it’s part of the fun and a (21) rare treat to see the personalities of the “actors” shining through their “characters.”] Director Matt DiCarlo must have had a grand time working with all of the nuances of this crazy show; his cast certainly shines and performances are very (22) well done. (Yes, “well done” and “rare” are both on the list. “Medium,” alas, is not.) As much as the “Drama Society” actors are about the (23) worst thing you could imagine, the actors playing them are superb (a word not on the list) and a joy to watch.
Evan Alexander Smith plays the dual role of the Drama Society’s director and the inspector who comes out in a (24) bad snowstorm (shredded paper flung into the air outside of the window) to uncover the answer to the mysterious death of Charles Haversham (Yaegel T. Welch), who is shown dead from the opening of the play but somehow never quite stays that way. Among the suspects: brother and sister Thomas and Florence Colleymoore (Peyton Crim and Jamie Ann Romero), the dead man’s brother Cecil (Ned Noyes), and the butler, Perkins (Scott Cote). Crim, with a booming voice that would be perfectly at home in coming attractions trailers at the movies, has a dynamic presence onstage, a complete contrast with Noyes, whose “actor” character is in the show by virtue of having donated large sums of money. As “Max,” Noyes happily chews scenery, breaks character, and interacts with the audience when there is applause or laughter (both of which are plentiful), and generally has a (25) good time every minute, as opposed to Crim’s more serious character. Romero spends a good part of the play “unconscious” in the wings, replaced by Grovey as Annie the Stage Manager, who is terrified to be onstage until she finds her mojo and then can’t be pulled away, even fighting with the revived Romero to keep “her” role. Cote, playing a neophyte actor who is only doing drama because he failed in tryouts for everything else, has tremendous fun with the mispronunciations of words (“Kyan Niddy” is one of the best) as well as some great physical comedy near the end of the play. And Ellis is a hoot even before the play begins, as he and Grovey seek to fix last-minute issues on set.
If you are having a hard time keeping all of this straight, don’t worry: it may be (26) worthwhile to read about the “actors,” but the only people we are dealing with in this play are the “characters” they are playing, so nothing is really confusing. The Cornley Drama Society is merely a device used to convey an extra layer of comedy. Only once does anyone totally sink into the Drama Society character, and that is Smith as Geoff Bean, the troupe’s director, who breaks his Inspector character to reprimand the audience for its completely (27) proportionate response of laughter in the face of sublime silliness. “Stop laughing!” he shouts, insisting that it is a serious drama. The Murder at Haversham Manor may be, but there is absolutely nothing serious about The Play That Goes Wrong. This is a play that contains a scene that loops back on itself again and again and others in which the players have to contend with all sorts of physical comedy stemming from the breakdown of the set. Granted, it is (28) exciting to see how they manage it. Perhaps the (29) best bits come from that: the contortions characters create to hold onto falling decorations, the (30) queasy reactions of both characters and audience as parts of the set collapse, the chaos that results from multiple characters being knocked unconscious during a performance.
The Play That Goes Wrong is an absolutely outrageous, tremendously funny farce that will keep you laughing throughout the evening. There is nothing (31) drab about it at all. Honestly, I can’t recall laughing so constantly at anything in a very long time.
And if you’re wondering what the final word was, let’s just say I enjoyed a lovely, (32) moist piece of cake before the show and leave it at that.
The Play That Goes Wrong is a Broadway in Chicago production now playing at the Oriental Theatre, Randolph Street, Chicago through Dec. 16. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.