Theater Review: THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG (National Tour)

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by Lawrence Bommer on December 6, 2018

in Theater-Chicago,Tours


The title is brutally honest — and you can’t say you weren’t warned. In the style of Monty Python and Michael Frayn’s self-destroying farce Noises Off (an infinitely cleverer romp), The Play That Goes Wrong, a 2015 London hit written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, is a spoof of bad theater gone terrible. Here Murphy’s Law is gospel and the cruel laughter that ensues, triggered by a dreadful troupe of provincial amateurs — The Cornley University Drama Society — is entirely unintentional.

You’ll either find it convulsively hilarious or deem it a tedious, forced and overlong concoction of heavy-handed sight gags, collapsing props, assorted accidents, and embarrassingly imbecilic acting, including clumsy ad-libs, by hammy thespians.

My vote is with the latter.

It’s opening night of an Agatha Christie-like 1920s murder mystery called The Murder at Haversham Manor. As if to prove that entropy exists, what transpires is a mediocre Mousetrap, a catalog of calamities that opens with tech problems involving a bad sound system, a collapsing mantelpiece, a disappeared dog — everything, it seems, but the mention of Macbeth.

After this cursed debut, everything goes from wrong to worst. The over-plotted melodrama aside (which involves an unctuous duffer murdered on the night of his engagement party to a suspiciously venal fiancée), a dozen dogged performers and crew work overtime to undermine the cliché, “The show must go on.” No, it mustn’t when it’s this godawful.

When you’re enduring the histrionic horrors of these automaton actors, who never heard a cue they couldn’t miss, pluck and perseverance are simply perverse. The Cornley company specialize in on-the-cheap, condensed productions of such works as The Lion and the WardrobeJames and the Peach (which later became James, Where’s Your Peach?), and Cat. But they’ve got the right character count for this lame thriller. Everything else, however, is off, including a corpse that won’t stay still and a dithering ingénue who keeps getting knocked out by clumsy entrances and ends up fighting with the under-inspired techie who’s desperate to replace her.

One failure sets up the next, including doors that slam or stick, an upper floor that lurches lower until collapsing completely, paintings that won’t stay secure, and props that defy gravity. And for every scenic snafu there’s a performance problem because these inept and literal-minded clowns have no resourceful or any situational awareness: We endure an actor who can’t pronounce the words he’s written on his hand for prompting purposes; we cringe at forgotten or flubbed lines that end up kick-starting the same scene over and over á la Groundhog Day; and we wonder how much these wretched players can take before they surrender to all of this sheer stupidity.

Suspension of disbelief was never meant to cover so many crimes: Props are misplaced for future chaos. An industrial solvent is substituted for the many whisky-laden toasts. Limbs get trod upon, an unwanted character hastily thrust into a grandfather clock, artificial snow clumsily thrown through a window. Offstage quarrels threaten to implode the action. A sword fight disintegrates into bad vaudeville when a blade gets broken.

You catch the drift. The trouble is, as much as an audience likes to be “in on the joke,” this is mostly self-parody, so witlessly defective that you can’t tell whether it had any merit in the first place. Lacking any sense of controlling standards, toxically bad theater is just, well, depressing.

Under Matt DiCarlo’s direction, a little of this goes way too far. All this hysterical humor here would be overwrought in a one-act, let alone done to death over two interminable hours.

No, this show must not go on. But it might feel funnier if you got drunk enough. The intermission makes all the sense in the world.

photos by Jeremy Daniel

The Play That Goes Wrong
national tour
presented by Broadway in Chicago
at the Oriental Theatre until December 16, 2018
for tickets, call 800.775.2000
or visit Broadway in Chicago

tours through August 11, 2019
for dates, cities, and tickets, visit Play Goes Wrong

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Topping December 7, 2018 at 9:51 am

I think this might be my favorite Stage and Cinema headline of all time.


Barbara March 18, 2019 at 12:18 pm

Thank God someone has expressed what I experienced last night!
Thank you!


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