The Play That Goes Wrong

Jarred Webb and Kelly O'Sullivan in the Broadway Playhouse's "The Play That Goes Wrong." 

I'm not a huge fan of farce, but I have to admit that “The Play That Goes Wrong” is funny enough to chase away the winter blues.

Written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, the clever piece crafted as a play-within-a-play premiered in London a decade ago, played Broadway from 2017 to 2019, has been on tour and now is in an Equity production with local actors at the Broadway Playhouse.

The premise is that the Cornley University Drama Society is staging “The Murder at Haversham Manor,” a whodunit that owes a debt to Agatha Christie's “The Mousetrap” (among others) and, in its title, Charles Dickens' “Great Expectations” (remember Miss Haversham?). Before the show begins, the stage manager Annie Twilloil (Ernaisja Curry) and lighting and sound operator Trevor Watson (Colton Adams) work on the set trying to make a door stay closed and prevent the fireplace mantel from falling apart.

Then the director Chris Bean (Matt Mueller), president of the drama society, makes a speech explaining that a substantial bequest has enabled the group to follow such hits as “The Lion and The Wardrobe” and “Cat” with a 1920s murder mystery that has the right number of parts for the number of members. The staffing apparently was a little thinner, however, because in the program Chris is listed as set designer, costume designer, prop maker, box office manager, press and PR person, dramaturgy, voice coach, dialect coach, and fight choreographer—as well as portraying Inspector Carter and filling in for the role of Mr. Fitzroy during rehearsals.

This fake program is worth reading for Chris's hilarious “Letter From The President” and the phony bios of the actors. It's one of the most ingenious features of the setup and from it we learn that, besides Chris as the Inspector, we'll be seeing Jonathan Harris as Charles Haversham, Robert Grove as Thomas Colleymoore, Dennis Tyde as Perkins, Sandra Wilkinson as Florence Colleymoore and Max Bennett as both Cecil Haversham and Arthur the Gardener. The writer, we're told, is one Susie H.K. Brideswell.

The real program, which follows that fictitious one, lists Joseph Anthony Byrd as Jonathan, Jonah D. Winston as Robert, Michael Kurowski as Dennis, Kelly O'Sullivan as Sandra, and Jarred Webb as Max. Along with Mueller, Curry and Adams, they deserve high praise for impeccable timing, which is so essential for this kind of physical comedy, Matt DiCarlo shares directorial credit with original Broadway director Mark Bell, and many of the original designers are listed along with the local ones.

“The Murder” gets underway in classic fashion with a dead body—of Charles Haversham, we soon learn—on a fainting couch. Only he doesn't want to stay dead and other actors keep stepping on his hand. From there, everything that can go wrong does, from actors forgetting their lines and missing cues to doors sticking and props falling off the walls. The slapstick and sight gags become increasingly frenetic, so that a floor collapses sending furniture flying and cast members are manhandled and knocked unconscious.

In truth, some of the antics wear out their welcome. While a butler who repeatedly mispronounces key words remains amusing, characters supposedly sipping fine whiskey then spitting it out because it's something else entirely gets tired by the third time it happens (especially in this age of COVID-19). The dialogue loop triggered by a forgotten line also threatens to go south, and the screaming match between the leading lady and stage manager who steps in and then won't give up the role gets less humorous the longer it continues, though my opinion may be in the minority about that.

Another thing that happens with all the mishaps on stage is that it is easy to lose track of the twisted plot and hard to figure out, well, whodunit. Of course, it doesn't really matter, but I'll give you a hint: It's not the butler — or is it?

For the rest, you'll have to go see for yourself.

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