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

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

by Tony Frankel and Lawrence Bommer on July 14, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours


The title of this play is brutally honest — and you can’t say you weren’t warned. In the style of Monty Python and Michael Frayn’s 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 catalog of calamities that ensue are triggered by a dreadful troupe of provincial amateurs — The Cornley University Drama Society — who are not used to being provided such a grand set.

You’ll either find it convulsively hilarious, shrug your shoulders with “It is what it is,” or deem it a tedious, forced and overlong concoction of heavy-handed — and at times shockingly unfunny — sight gags, collapsing props, assorted accidents, and a waste of great actors playing 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 series of severities 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 their cursed beginning, 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. Normally, the Cornley company specializes 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. This time, they’ve got the right character count for this lame thriller. Everything else, however, is off for these poor thespians, 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 manic humor here would be overwrought in a one-act, let alone done to death over two interminable hours.

Until we actually believe the silly shenanigans on stage, or creators learn that a joke which doesn’t land the first time should definitely not be repeated three more times, this show must not go on. Perhaps it might feel funnier if you got drunk enough — intermission makes all the sense in the world for those who need a stiff drink. The interval makes even more sense for those not reviewing, the lucky ones who have an opportunity to bolt.

photos by Jeremy Daniel

The Play That Goes Wrong
national tour
presented by Center Theatre Group
Ahmanson Theatre (tickets)
ends in L.A. on August 11, 2019

tours into 2020
for dates, cities, and tickets, visit Play Goes Wrong

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Cris Franco July 17, 2019 at 6:42 pm

I caught the brilliantly funny original West End cast. I then caught the replacement West End cast and then the original New York cast. Each ensemble got progressively worse at understanding the material and thus overplayed the comedy. This genre is vaudeville meets comedia del arte and almost impossible for contemporary American actors to pull off. I’m a little excited (and scared) to see what’s at the Haversham Manor at the Ahmanson.


Christian Hirko July 19, 2019 at 11:35 am

Why would you go again? I’m dreading my first viewing. Trying to sell my first row tickets for Thursday matinee.


Ken Berry July 28, 2019 at 4:11 pm

I saw the show presented by Broadway in Boston last November at the beautiful Colonial Theatre. This was a outstanding comedy to be able to attend at this great theatre. Everyone that I have spoken to about this show would certainly see it again. Local humor and all.

I am sure that when this show appeared at the Kennedy Center they sure had it easy as there is plenty of humor in DC these days.


Leave a Comment