Monday, August 14, 2023

Review: The Play That Goes Wrong (Kennedy Center)

Review of the Sunday, August 13, 2023 matinee performance at the Eisenhower Theater at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Starring Bartley Booz, Joseph Anthony Byrd, Peyton Crim, Mara Davi, Matt Harrington, Kai Heath, Alex Mandell, and Akron Watson. A Mischief Theatre Production of a play by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields. Scenic design by Nigel Hook. Costume design by Roberto Surace. Lighting design by Jeremy Cunningham. Sound design by Beth Lake. Original music by Rob Falconer. Broadway direction by Mark Bell. Tour company direction by Matt DiCarlo. 2 hours, 20 minutes, including one intermission. This production closed with this performance.

Grade: C- 

The Play That Goes Wrong is that odd production that I'm glad I saw, enjoyed while I watched it, and the further from it, the less I like about it. Clearly, I am in the minority, as the play had a healthy Broadway run, and continues to this day off-Broadway at New World Stages. If the audience at the Kennedy Center (where I saw it) is any indication, there have been thousands of theater-goers who adored it. 

The laughter was nearly non-stop (yes, I did laugh a lot) and of that gut-hurting level of howls and shrieks. In short, they ate it up. It is a masterclass of physical comedy with the level of depth one might expect from a Carol Burnett Show sketch. Would that Ms. Burnett have been there - she would have known when to stop before even one gag was carried out too long. In fact, there were several moments that I actively thought, "You know, Harvey Corman and Tim Conway would have really knocked that bit right out of the park!"

Not that it matters, but the plot concerns a college dramatics society production of a play called The Murder at Haversham Manor. The conceit is that they are inept from the get-go and try valiantly to honor that adage, "the show must go on!" As one improbable thing after another "goes wrong," even the plot disappears altogether. What is frustrating is the completely unrelenting silliness that stops being attached to anything even close reality. That's what ultimately makes something truly funny. After a while, it just stops being funny. Well, that's not exactly true. I found myself laughing right up to the end when a few surprising bits popped up.

Mostly though, I delighted at just how well the cast performed these stunts. I hope they are heavily insured, and have an expert masseuse on speed dial. I particularly enjoyed the sassy soubrette
 turn of Mara Davi. Sexy and smart, and surely made of rubber, she was a riot. Then there was Peyton Crim whose deep, rumbling voice made his spot-on dead pan delivery a whole new level of hilarious. Then there's Alex Mandell who did the impossible for me - he made highly exaggerated, nuance-free  (and crazily athletic) acting consistently funny. Everyone else did well in a non-stand out way.

This is the very first show I've ever seen where the cast, in a move usually reserved for acknowledging the orchestra, recognized the set during the curtain call. I mean, it makes sense. It is as much (if not more) a character than any human in the company. It's not surprising that Nigel Hook won a Tony Award for his efforts. The other technical elements were very good, too, with an extra nod to Rob Falconer's witty score.

Ultimately, what really goes wrong with this play isn't the onstage mayhem, but rather outstaying its welcome. Always leave 'em wanting more, not less. Even college dramatic societies know that.

📸: M. Klein, A. Muir

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