It’s not often that theater reviewers heap praise on the set designer in the same way that they do on the writers, actors, and directors. Perhaps they should . . . and after seeing “The Play That Goes Wrong,” the farcical London import that’s sweeping through the United States on a whirlwind tour, this reviewer will definitely pay more attention to the intricacies of set design and stage management.
Seen in its San Francisco’s unfortunately too brief special engagement, “The Play That Goes Wrong,” meticulously directed by Matt DiCarlo, is a laugh-out-loud comedy about the amateur English “Cornley University Drama Society,” who is attempting to put on its version of a 1920s’ cozy murder mystery, “The Murder at Haversham Manor.” It’s akin to the great Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap,” and a zillion others of its genre.
The silly evening, written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan, Sayer, and Henry Shields (the Mischief Theatre gang), begins in a uniquely funny way, as we watch two stagehands (Brandon J. Ellis and Angela Grovey) struggle in vain to complete the dreary English manor drawing room set (special kudos to Set Designer Nigel Hook).
Then the director of the Cornley Drama Society (Evan Alexander Smith, who also plays leading man, Chris) nervously addresses the audience in a curtain speech before “The Murder at Haversham Manor” begins. He congratulates the Drama Society in casting the full complement of actors necessary to produce the play as it was initially intended. That was not the case in some of their past productions, like “The Two Sisters,” “The Lion and the Wardrobe,” and “Cat,” he explains.
And when the inner play within the play begins, what doesn’t go wrong? Entrances and exits are missed, lines are muffed and repeated, props are missing, mispronunciations are prevalent, and the set assaults the actors with disastrous, yet laughable consequences. There is a ton of physical comedy. In what must be hard work, the expert and talented cast pratfalls continuously. The plucky crew of the Cornley Drama Society faces countless on-stage catastrophes, yet keeps on going.
And the play keeps on going for a bit longer than is very funny. Because, in this two-act, two-and-one-half hour slapstick bit of fluff, the second act is basically a reproduction of the first act, only in exaggerated form. One can see how tempting it must have been to stretch out the original shorter fringe-comedy concept into the length of a typical two-act play. But in this case, less would have definitely been more.
Nevertheless, in these fraught times, “The Play That Goes Wrong” is just the kind of harebrained, pointless, funny, and forgettable entertainment that we need.
Emily S. Mendel
©Emily S. Mendel 2019 All Rights Reserved