BWW Review: THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG Gets Classic Comedy Just Right
Should you be in the mood for a serious drama about important issues with topical relevance, performed by actors committed to preserving the integrity of the production, attended by patrician guests who devote themselves to arts patronage in the interests of intellectual and cultural enhancement, you'd be quite right to stay well away from THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG. This is not that.
If, however, you're interested in comedy that works on levels that range from Stooge to Earnest, as conceived by a British group of former drama and music students who performed in the original iteration of the piece, (think Second City or In Living Color) which begins at "funny," blazes past "hilarious" and "side-splitting" straight to "uproarious," then ramps it up in Act II, you have struck (fool's) gold with THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG
Michael Frayn's 1982 NOISES OFF, which most people theoretically understand is a show about a show that goes wrong, is a farce about a farce. THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG is a farce about a whodunnit that keeps going in spite of itself. Whereas NOISES OFF has a fabulous set that can (and should) be stunningly well-executed and staunchly reliable while the cast of "actors in the show" deteriorates before our eyes, THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG has a "cast" that remains firmly committed and 'in the moment' despite various production issues and other errors that arise indeed even before the "show" properly begins.
This is as much about the plot as I'm prepared to say, since I'm committed to spoiler-free reviews.
Writers Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields are founding members of the theatrical comedy group Mischief Theatre. Since 2008, the company has performed scripted and improvised comedy. THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG premiered in London in 2012, won the WhatsOnStage.com Best New Comedy in 2014, then Best New Comedy at the Laurence Olivier Awards in 2015. Since then, in the spirit of Cracked Magazine and Weird Al Yankovic, the team has produced PETER PAN GOES WRONG and CHRISTMAS CAROL GOES WRONG for BBC Television, landing Dame Diana Rigg and Sir Derek Jacobi in featured roles for the latter.
THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG is agreeably well-written. Clearly this team has learned, and followed, the rules of comedy. The very-far-from amateurish script includes slapstick, repetition, mispronunciation, callbacks, prop comedy, crowding, unexpected entrances, pantomime, reversals, costume malfunctions, role switching, overacting, inappropriateness and an astonishing number and variety of spit-takes. It puts a check mark in each box of comic opportunity, stopping just short of a pair of waggling eyebrows, a cigar, a bicycle horn and two hard-boiled eggs.
American Tour Director Matt DiCarlo, after his Broadway stint as Production Stage Manager for THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG, surely preserves Broadway Director Mark Bell's directorial integrity during this equity tour, simultaneously adapting to venue specificities on an as-needed basis. I imagine this provides a reassuring sense of continuity to the cast members, who are in every way awe-inspiring and terrific.
Evan Alexander Smith handles his role as Chris Bean with the timing of a well-seasoned John Cleese, and the looks of a young one. The hesitations in his delivery are exactly the right length. He is the cornerstone on which the rest of the performance is built, though, to be fair, the performance begins before Chris' opening remarks. Annie Twilloil, played by Angela Grovey, emerges reluctantly while the house fills and engages members of the audience in a very un-fourth-wall way. Her Act II transformation, though third-rate sit-com predictable, is fiendishly funny. Brandon Ellis plays Trevor the booth tech with both panache and testosterone, and his timing is impeccable. In the role of Jonathan / Charles Haversham, Yaegel Welch makes much of a part that's short on lines but long on physical comedy and manages to look dapper even while perspiring. Peyton Crim's deep mellifluous voice makes every line of his dialogue as Robert / Thomas Colleymoore delightful to hear, his dry witticisms are snicker-worthy, and his value as a foil is impossible to overstate. As hapless Dennis, who bumbles through some of the very worst of performance terrors, Scott Cote is endearingly befuddled. His deadpan delivery of "dumb actor" mistakes, and his following impotent fury provoke the audience to great guffaws. Instead of Ned Noyes, the billed actor, the part of Max is tonight undertaken by Designated Understudy Sid Solomon. A word about the Designated Understudies: there are four of them. FOUR. For an eight-character script. This seems disproportionate, until one observes the type and level of physical comedy that permeates most of the show. If physical injury only appears to be highly probable, exhaustion seems inevitable. Blair Baker, Jacqueline Jarrold and Michael Thatcher each have learned at least TWO roles apiece- Solomon has learned three and Thatcher, four, in addition to being Fight Captain. Sid Solomon is so very Maxian that I don't realize he is an alternate until intermission when I look at my programme and find in it a slip of paper that informs audience members of the substitution. Solomon's extravagant gesticulations and engaging grin may not be appropriate for the murder mystery, but they certainly resonate with the people in the audience, who love him immediately. Jamie Ann Romero, who plays Sandra, has the elegant length of a dancer and looks wonderful draped across the furniture but has the physical strength and control of a master Clown. This is particularly evident during a scene in which Sandra unwittingly upstages the "action" that's front and center. Both her legs and her underwear are fabulous.
Production values in THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG are amazing even -especially- when they look terrible. As Dolly Parton reportedly said, "It takes a lot of money to look this cheap," so does tech that looks dreadful require very high-end and sophisticated engineering for maximum effect. High praise to Scenic Designer Nigel Hook- he delivers a lovingly detailed (if unrealistically high-budget for the Cornley University Drama Society) one-set playing space perfect for the "cozy" murder mystery which is ostensibly being performed this evening. The real brilliance of the design is invisible like a magic trick, and I'll say no more about that, lest I ruin it.
Costume Designer Roberto Surace, who frequently works with the Mischief team, takes advantage of 'stock' character visuals to provide us with ample information that supports semi- stock dialogue. We know at once who's stuffy, who's sassy, and who's sultry. The lighting and sound are excellently non-distractive. Fight Captain Michael Thatcher creates the best worst duel sequence this audience has ever seen. Even the print media has been craftily managed, including the programme, so there's nothing drab about any aspect of the production.
The France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, (the official title of the Hippodrome Theatre, still resplendent in all its Baroque glory), is smack downtown, occupying the West side of Eutaw from Baltimore to Fayette Street and includes an attached parking structure. Street parking is occasionally available, there's an open lot nearby, and an older parking structure on the East side of Eutaw Street a tiny bit North of the theatre.
The bar - or, rather, barS, serve pre-show snacks, soft drinks and cocktails. Staff and volunteers are friendly, knowledgeable and expediently helpful. Should you return to one of the bars at intermission, tasty refreshments you purchase are permitted inside the theatre.
If you're fond of farce, hunting for hilarity, all about actors acting, interested in irreverence, longing for laughter or titillated by tech, get it right and go to THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG. Being left out of the fun would be an awful shame.
See THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG through Sunday only at the Hippodrome- Saturday Matinee at 2 pm, Sunday Matinee at 1:00 pm, evening performances at 8:00 pm and 6:30 pm, respectively. Tickets are available online.
The Hippodrome is located at
12 North Eutaw Street, Baltimore, MD, 21201
Box Office: 410-837-7400
Photo Credit: Jeremy Daniel