Imagine a drama society with many wanna-bes finally getting funding, but not necessarily the talent to stage a whodunit? Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields of Mischief Theatre Company in Great Britain did and “The Play That Goes Wrong” went on to win the Best New Comedy Laurence Olivier Award in 2015 and the original cast went to Broadway in 2017, leaving with a Tony for Best Scenic Design of a Play. Now at the Ahmanson, while the gags seem to run a little long, the production is top notch and an amusing way to spend an evening.
Be sure to get there early and sit down as soon as the ushers will permit. The set-up of this evening’s joke begins before we get the official opening. The “crew” (Angela Grovey as Annie the stage manager and Brandon J. Ellis as Trevor the light and sound operator) attempts to fix the broken mantlepiece and find a dog. You should also read the faux bios of all the cast and crew who are all making their touring debuts. This isn’t the first production by the fictitious Cornley University Drama Society. Under certain budget constraints, the show’s “director” Chris Bean (Evan Alexander Smith) explains the society has put on “The Lion and The Wardrobe,” “Cat,” and “James and the Peach” or after a misadventure, “James, Where’s your Peach?”
Bean serves not only as the director of this new endeavor, “The Murder at Haversham Manor,” but also the costume designer, voice coach and fight choreographer as well as the Inspector Carter. Set in the 1920s, the play opens with a dead body. Inspector Carter has been summoned to Haversham Manor after Charles Haversham (Yaegel T. Welch as Jonathan Harris who plays Charles) has been discovered dead, but elegantly laid out on a chaise in the center of the room. It is an unfortunate conclusion to Charles Haversham’s engagement party but his fiancée, Florence Colleymoore (Jamie Ann Romero who plays Sandra Wilkinson who plays Florence), doesn’t seem particularly bereaved. She’s really in love with Charles’ younger brother, Cecil Haversham (Ned Noyes who plays Max Bennett who plays Cecil). That should make Cecil the prime suspect, but there’s also Florence’s brother, Thomas Colleymoore (Peyton Crim playing Robert Grove who plays Thomas) and the butler Perkins (Scott Cote who plays Dennis Tyde who plays Perkins).
Continuing problems with the set require both Annie and Trevor to make unscheduled appearances, but the production is also plagued by Jonathan Harris’ inability to play dead for very long and remembering his cues. Visually, you’ll wonder how the African American Harris is the brother of the very white Noyes’ Cecil, but casting can be troublesome in a small company on a tight budget. Noyes’ portrays Max as not a particularly good actor, but one who is more than willing to break character and make outlandish gestures to provoke laughter.
If physical humor hits your funny bone, then “The That Play Goes Wrong” may be just the ticket. At one point, the luckless Wilkinson is knocked out and Florence must be played by one of the backstage crew on book, but only after the cast can get the unconscious Wilkinson off stage. What really makes this production is Nigel Hook’s set design which provides much of the humor and surprises. Director Matt DiCarlo (Mark Bell directed the Broadway show), ably gets good actors to act badly as the unfortunately ungifted drama society members and the timing is spot on with some pratfalls and scenic mishaps happening so fast you can’t afford to blink.
We’ve all had bad weeks. You might think your life is bound by Murphy’s law or you might have been an actor similarly involved in a production that lacked talent in the right places or a budget for a worthy set or costuming, but surely, your life or your worst production isn’t as hilariously horrific as this production. Let someone else’s bad luck lighten up your day.
“The Play That Goes Wrong” continues until 11 August 2019.