Review: THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG at Kennedy Center

The production runs at The Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater through August 13.

By: Jul. 23, 2023
Review: THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG at Kennedy Center
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Great theatre, like all art, must resonate with its audience.  "Our Town" makes us reflect on change and the fragile, precious nature of life. Anyone familiar with the 9-5 rat race can relate to "Glengarry Glen Ross." Mischief Theatre's production of "The Play That Goes Wrong" by Henry Lewis,, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shears, struck a chord with me because I wrote and directed a play in my senior year in college and opening night went...less than smoothly. Anyone who has ever participated in a theatrical production, onstage or backstage (a demographic well-represented in this publication's readership, I imagine) knows the matchless horror that chills the blood when an actor enters late or early or forgets a key line, a sound cue is missed, or a prop doesn't work correctly. As the title implies, the Mischief production takes this dramaturgical nightmare to the nth degree.

The play of the title is a student-run production by the Drama Society of the fictional Chicago-based Corley University, titled "Murder at Haversham Manor," an Agatha Christie-esque whodunit. Dramatic music blares over the sound system as the audience  enters and takes in the set, consisting of a lounge in the manor, and a flimsily-constructed elevated loft where one knows nothing good will happen. Before the play starts, lighting and sound director Trevor (Akron Watson) and stage manager Annie (Kai Heath) run about the set, trying to fix the door and the mantle over the fireplace. They don't succeed, or had you guessed that? In addition to the main set, a smaller area on the theater's left serves as Trevor's booth from which he attempts to manage the stage's technical functions.

At the show's beginning, Chris Bean (Matt Harrington) head of the Drama Society, and director, fight choreographer, voice coach, dialect coach, costume designer and co-star of the piece (I at least had enough sense not to act in my show) welcomes the audience. He recounts previous, diminished productions staged by the poorly-funded and sparsely-membered Drama Society, such as "Two Sisters," "The Lion and the Wardrobe," and "Cat" before introducing us to the evening's production. Joseph Anthony Byrd as Jonathan Harris plays Charles Haversham, lord of the eponymous manor. He lies dead on his couch in the lounge, and playing a corpse seems to be outside of Harris' dramatic range. The play, as one would expect, concerns the efforts of the other guests at the manor to discover Haversham's killer. There actually seems to be a halfway-decent murder mystery buried in the script, which, of course, makes it all the funnier as the play proceeds in a state of what one might call martial Murphy's Law: anything that can go wrong must go wrong.

To list in this space even a tenth of the calamities depicted would be an exercise in futility, so here are some particular highlights: towards the end of the first act, the cast repeats the same sequence of lines four times before remembering how the scene is meant to continue. Sandra Wilkinson (Mara Davi) who plays Florence Colleymore, Haversham's fiancee, is knocked unconsciousness during the performance. (And she is not the only one to suffer this fate during the course of the show.) Annie is conscripted to fill the role, reading lines in a flat tone from a binder. Initially reluctant, she fights Florence for the role when the latter eventually comes to. Bean's Inspector Carter conducts a post-mortem of Haversham's non-present body. The cast members twist their bodies in contortions worth of Cirque du Soleil in an effort to keep the set from collapsing as they play their roles.

Director Matt DiCarlo keeps the play moving at a madcap pace throughout the two hour run-time. The cast brilliantly portray bad actors-no small feat. Nigel Hook designed the set that hilariously collapses in every conceivable way.

"The Play That Goes Wrong" is, essentially, a one-joke comedy, but it's a very funny joke. The audience was in hysterics as we filed out. Any theatrically-involved viewers may find solace in the knowledge that any onstage mishap they have caused or endured was nothing compared to what they see in the show. And they will smile knowingly at this extreme depiction of the famous thespian's dictum: "The show must go on." 


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