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‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ has jokes galore, but not much more

The repetitive slapstick in the Broadway Playhouse comedy doesn’t add up to much.

The Cornley University Drama Society attempts to stage a murder mystery, with little success, in “The Play That Goes Wrong.”
Jeremy Daniel

“The Play That Goes Wrong” could also be titled “The Play That’s Too Long.” Each is accurate. The driving ethos in the slapstick comedy that’s been running since 2012 in London’s West End? More is more. If one spit take is hilarious, a dozen are exponentially so. If one bonk on the head is funny, best to repeat it over and over, sometimes in exaggerated slo-mo.

But quantity does not equal quality in the audience-pandering commercial hit that’s played six continents. This raucous, repetitive physical comedy from London’s Mischief Theatre would be far more effective if authors Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields didn’t drive every single gag into the ground and then bludgeon it to death. The characters are merely types, broad as a barn door and served with more ham than a Honey Baked store.

In director Matt DiCarlo’s staging (original Broadway direction by Mark Bell), Nigel Hook’s scenic design (based on the original, which won a Tony in 2017) is the star. It implodes in the first act and implodes even more in the second. One moment, pictures falling from the walls. The next, the floors are collapsing under the actors’ feet. It’s impressive. Would that the plot and characters were too.

At lights up, we’re welcomed by Chris Bean (Matt Mueller), president of the Cornley University Drama Society and director of the society’s murder-mystery play-within-the-play, “The Murder at Haversham Manor.” The action unfolds on “Haversham’s” intentionally cheesy set, which credibly captures a community theater version of a manor.

Almost everyone in the eight-member ensemble is double-cast, the actors playing roles in “Murder at Haversham Manor” as well as the Cornley Society actors playing those roles. It sounds like a lot to keep track of. It is not. The intrepid but awful society actors chewing up the increasingly dangerous (or so it seems) scenery are about mugging and yuks, not plot and character. Director DiCarlo has them repeatedly breaking the fourth wall if the laughs aren’t enough, egging the audience on until an acceptable amount of guffawing fills the Broadway Playhouse.

The mystery’s sound and lighting operator (Colton Adams) offers deadpan reactions to the madness of “The Play That Goes Wrong.”
Jeremy Daniel

The brightest spot in the cast is Colton Adams as Trevor Watson, a Duran Duran obsessive and Cornley’s surly lighting/sound operator. During his sequester for much of the show in a “sound booth” perched above the stage, Adams’ deadpan take on the nonsense unfolding below is welcome diversion from the shrill aesthetic that dominates the two-hour run-time.

There are several solid comic moments, primarily when Trevor forgets about the Cornley production entirely, leaving the actors to muddle their way through an inadvertent sonic blast from “Girls on Film,” or “Rio.”

But even with ’80s popstars as a guiding light, Trevor can’t save the disastrous “Murder at Haversham Manor” any more than DiCarlo’s cast can save the stratospherically over-the-top “The Play That Goes Wrong.” Still, the cast’s efforts border on heroic. Among the most memorable is the battle Jonah D. Winston wages as Cornley actor Robert Grove, who must contort himself into Twister-like pretzels as he battles gravity from the set’s perilous second story.

Also initially amusing is the catfight between Cornley stage manager Annie Twilloil (Ernaisja Curry) and Cornley leading lady Sandra Wilkinson (Kelly O’Sullivan). The pair are hauled through windows, stuffed into grandfather clocks and conked on the head with all manner of blunt objects. It’s all kind of funny, the first time.

If you’re a fan of the slappiest kind of slapstick and the campiest forms of camp, you won’t go wrong with “The Play That Goes Wrong.” That collapsible set is a display of controlled chaos that looks positively out-of-control. But beneath the crashing optics, you’ll find a play that lacks substance.