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A CurtainUp Review
The Play That Goes Wrong
It just isn't in the cards for the spunky if not-quite-as-talented-as-they-think members of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society that their performance of a hoary 1920ish whodunit Murder at Haversham Hall should go without a hitch, or better yet, without a really horrible mishap or two or more.
Theater people know that it also takes a collaboration of skilled technicians and craftspeople to keep a show running smoothly during performance. It is that essential dependency that appears to be missing in support of the players during their apparently also ill-rehearsed doings at Haversham Hall.
The audience at the Lyceum Theatre is privy to what is in store in a pre-show glimpse of the Drama Society's efforts to finish preparing the set for the play-within-a-play that we will eventually see in its hell-bent journey to its cataclysmic conclusion. It would not be cricket reveal exactly what proof exists from the start that entrances and exits are not to be taken for granted. So let's just say that the performance will eventually commence with certain considerations, or lack of such, taken into account. The pre-show efforts to secure the stability and functionality of a few set pieces are funny indeed and provided me with what turned out to be my heartiest laughs.
This is not to say that the actual performing of the play-within-the-play didn't amuse me, at least to the extent that it did the audience around me or that of my companion who later admitted to being almost embarrassed by her inability to contain her laughs. I won't be a spoilsport and share the proliferation of over-the top mishaps and missteps that befall the company before the much anticipated Armageddon.
Anyone who has ever appeared in or worked on a college or community theater production will know how much depends upon the props being in the right place, lighting cues followed to the tee, and for settings to provide a modicum of safety.
Don't worry I won't bore you with the inconsequential plot that concerns the murder of the wealthy Charles Haversham (Greg Tannahill), the collection of nutty relatives anyone of whom may have done the dastardly deed— including the obligatory butler who probably didn't, the devious grounds keeper and an inept Inspector who calls.
What delighted me the most were the exuberant performances by actors with whom I'm not familiar but who I definitely look forward to seeing again. All appear to have interpreted their cardboard characters with a decided flair for being profoundly unsuited to the profession. Henry Shields is making his auspicious Broadway debut as the ever optimistic drama company's artistic director and as the confounded Inspector Carter. The hilarious David Hearn makes sure that we know that he, as Charles's brother Cecil Haversham, has apparently just graduated from the Over Indicating School of Acting.
Jonathan Sayer is terrific as Perkins the butler who not only can't pronounce half the words he has to say but puts into motion a chaotic scene that suddenly has no end. Charlie Russell is super as Thomas's sister Florence Colleymoore who has a tendency to have an erotic/dyspeptic 'episode' as is Nancy Zamit as a stage hand who gets swept into the action. Both equally engaging and loony while ably doing stunts beyond that of mere mortals.
Confined in his box at the Lyceum Theatre box, we are amused by Rob Falconer's deadpan indifference to his role as Trevor, the director of all things technical — that is until he is unwittingly called upon to appear on stage. Also very funny is the near-tragic situation that the physically dexterous Henry Lewis as Charles's old school friend Thomas Colleymoore finds himself in when not exactly supported by the floor beams of designer Chris Bean's superlative set. We could call the set a major character in a play whose support beams have not been otherwise braced by the essential nuts and bolts needed for a really crackerjack comedy.
This type of incident beleaguered rather than plot-propelled farce is unquestionably difficult to sustain for two acts. Director Bell has certainly done everything possible to keep our eye on the prize and get the play and its players to the final curtain call. However, the main problem with this precisely directed The Play That Goes Wrong is that we are able anticipate from one moment to the next how and why things are fated to go wrong. That's why I couldn't help thinking of Michael Frayn's more complexly structured and oft revived 1982 farce Noises Off that glowed with the repetition of a very bad play but still remained full of surprises. But, whereas The Play That Goes Wrong glows with antic performances also in a very bad play, it is basically devoid of surprises. That's why I can't say whether you will be satisfied or remain ultimately suspect, as I was, of this flimsy murder mystery hiding within a fearlessly antic comedy. You can, nevertheless, absolutely expect to laugh, even if perhaps not as often or as hard as that person next to you.
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The Play That Goes Wrong
Written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields
Directed by Mark Bell
Cast: Matthew Cavendish, Bryony Corrigan, Rob Falconer, Dave Hearn, Henry Lewis, Charlie Russell, Jonathan Sayer, Henry Shields, Greg Tannahill, and Nancy Zamit.
Sets: Nigel Hook
Costumes: Roberto Surace
Sound: Andy Johnson
Stage Manager: Matt DiCarlo
Running Time: 2 hours and 5 minutes, including 1 15-minute intermission
Lyceum 149 W.45th Street
From 3/09/17; opening 4/02/17; closing open
Reviewed by Simon Saltzman at 4/01/17 press preview
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