The Play That Goes Wrong @ Stage West | Feb 22
Review at OnstageNTX.com by Jill Sweeney
Farce: I try not to yuck anyone else’s yum, but it ain’t for me. Too broad, too predictable—too much. So I can’t say I approached the opening night of Stage West’s current production of The Play That Goes Wrong (a co-production with Addison’s WaterTower Theatre) with a ton of enthusiasm.
Never have I been more pleased to be dead wrong.
Some plays mount Chekhov’s gun above the mantel, and you eye it throughout the production, waiting for the thing to go off. This play is Chekhov’s armory—loaded pistols, hunting rifles, cannons, machine guns, bazookas in plain sight, all over the stage. Exactly how and when they’ll go off (and who will be in their path) is the question.
It's the opening night for the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society’s production of The Murder at Haversham Manor, following last season’s smash hit productions of the re-named shows Cat and Two Sisters (budget cuts), plus James and the Peach (later re-titled James, Where’s Your Peach? after the titular fruit went a bit mushy).
After an opening bit of business from the play’s tech crew, director Chris (played by Parker Gray, who, in an “life reflects art” moment, had his name omitted from the program’s cast list) welcomes us to the society’s production, and we’re off to the races. Set pieces break, vital props are mislaid, lines are forgotten, or looped ad nauseum. Actors are knocked out of commission and replaced with stand-ins who are, to put it generously, a bit less than qualified. If it can go wrong, it does. But the valiant members of Cornley Polytechnic soldier on, trying to right the ship and live up to that highest of theatrical commandments: the show must go on!
Never has timing been so key to a show’s success; Stage West’s cast—a murderer’s row of talent, under the keen-eyed direction of Harry Parker—has to work hand-in-glove with the show’s technical elements for the gags to come off, and they do it with a precision, and a level of panache and physical effort that’s sheer joy to watch.
Gray—having just honed his skills portraying a similar “nominally in charge but rapidly spiraling into panic” character in his recent much-praised run as Frederick Frankenstein in Young Frankenstein (a co-pro between Circle Theatre and Theatre Three)—brings a palpable desperation to director Chris (who naturally has cast himself as the show’s star, the dashing Inspector Carter), and a loose-limbed physicality that had the audience howling. Zak Reynolds, as the mugging, scene-stealing co-star milking his funniest bits dry (the guy every actor despises), does indeed steal several scenes, both as the duplicitous Cecil and as Arthur the Gardener of indeterminate age.
While I’m familiar with most of the cast, Blake Henri was a fresh face for me, and I really enjoyed the weary resignation he brought to his character as the play went on. While the other “actors” were frantic to continue, he was the only one who seemed ready to throw in the towel, making for a nice contrast. Alison Whitehurst is a show MVP as the oft-hysterical Florence (the victim’s girl), gamely pratfalling and being hauled around like a shapely sack of potatoes. And though it perhaps went on a touch too long, Florence’s battles with her temporary stand-in, stage manager Annie (Hannah Bell, increasingly and hilariously in love with the limelight) got some of the night’s biggest laughs.
Every murder mystery needs a butler, and here it’s Stage West managing director Mark Shum as Perkins, the victim’s loyal manservant. Perkins is played by “Dennis” in the show—who gives his all in the part, even down to the harder words he’s scribbled on his palm. Francisco Grifaldo’s Trevor, the show’s light and sound board operator, brings the appropriate level of concern (none) to the show’s troubles, and understudy Micah JL Brooks makes for a pretty spry corpse, trying gamely to keep still and silent as his castmates heave him around the stage.
But it might be the show’s set, designed by Bryan Stevenson, that’s the real star of the show. I hesitate to go into too much detail, lest I spoil any of the show’s gags, but beyond the comedic set pieces, several elements create a real sense of danger, even provoking screams from the audience in the show’s Buster Keaton-esque final moments.
Stage West’s production is riotously funny, and a reminder of how often good actors really do have to think on their feet and save the show from disaster. But thankfully, these “actors” don’t manage it here—it’s too funny watching this play go horribly, hilariously wrong.