THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG(Regional Premier)
Written by Henry Lewis, Henry Shields, and Jonathan Sayer
Co-Production with Stage West Theatre
Directed by Harry B. Parker
Set design by Bryan Stevenson
Light design by Aaron Johansen
Costume design by Aaron Patrick DeClerk
Sound design by Emilee Biles
Fight choreography by Mitchell Stephens
Dialect coordination by Christina Cranshaw
Props and set décor by Lynn Lovett
Production Stage Manager - Christopher Treviño
Assistant Stage Manager - Breanna Gaddis
Assistant Directors - Alejandro Saucedo, Christina Cranshaw, and Mitchell Stephens.
Dennis - Mark Shum
Chris – Parker Gray
Sandra - Alison Whitehurst
Max - Zak Reynolds
Robert - Blake Henri
Annie - Hannah Bell
Jonathan - Drew Denton
Trevor - Francisco Grifaldo
Understudies - Micah Brooks, Christina Cranshaw, and Mitchell Stephens
Reviewed Performance: 2/3/2023
Reviewed by Ann Saucer, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
When we enter the theater, the audience is treated to black-clad putative crew members sweeping the stage and searching for a missing Duran Duran CD. The set presents a posh parlor and an upstairs study at Haversham Manor in the 1920s. Stage right features a fireplace painted onto the set, with a mantle theoretically in place above it. The wall above is decorated with an oval painting of the bougie family dog rather than any human patriarch. A red velvet curtain hangs on rods over a story-high window, and a chaise lounge in luminous green velvet, replete with gold tassels and throw pillows, takes center stage. None of those things are going to survive in place.
The company’s lighting and sound operator, Trevor (Francisco Grifaldo), takes the stage to make overtly cranky announcements, although he does sincerely want you to find his Duran Duran CD (not to worry, it eventually shows up). Grifaldo’s flippant delivery completely convinces both audience and the company, and he does a great job of teasing the humor out of Trevor’s curious mix of incompetence and ennui.
Things literally fall apart from the beginning, and from the start the play tracks and explores the theme of cast and crew grappling with live stage mishaps in real-time. The audience is treated to the behind-the-scenes debacle as it unfolds. In addition to stage fixtures that lose the battle with gravity, the canine Winston is missing and must be found before the second act.
We hear inadvertently on-mic comments, including Trevor’s explanation that Chris is about to give his “stupid speech.” Chris (Parker Gray) is the head of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society and stars as Inspector Carter. Chris recites the hilarious titles of the Society’s prior incomplete productions, i.e., Chekov’s Two Sisters, Cat (singular), and James Where’s Your Peach?
Chris is one of the less incompetent thespians, but when he finally loses it, Gray treats us to an impeccable breakdown. One ongoing gag is what happens when amateur actors fail to rehearse with the actual stage props. A ledger vital to Chris’ scene is removed from its place under the chaise cushion by an actor who assumed its presence there was a mistake. Gray is utterly hilarious as an increasingly desperate Chris abandons his search for a substitute and is reduced to a weeping mess in a fetal position downstage center. Chris does rebound with enough spunk to yell at the participating audience member (it’s a CHAISE!).
Another prop mishap involves the butler Perkins aka Dennis (Mark Shum) picking up the wrong bottle. One charm of this play is that little things trigger chain reactions that culminate in ever-increasing laughs. Something goes wrong, and the cast and crew make an improvisational choice that compounds the calamity. Here, Dennis needs to pick up the empty bottle first and the full bottle second. The playwrights milk this one mistake for maximum ongoing laughs. Dennis’ preposterous method of disposing of the errant liquid, the audience’s realization of what happened when we see the second bottle, and the stage manager’s inane substitution all keep the gag going.
Shum is brilliant at playing an incompetent actor. Shum deadpans Dennis’ coping mechanism for poor reading skills, i.e., reading off of his palm but then mispronouncing the words. The character itself is delightfully conceived. Dennis’ portrayal of an English butler is fantastic most of the time, but his sporadic instances of incompetence illustrate the vulnerability of live theater.
The murder victim is supposed to be the wealthy landowner Charles Haversham aka Jonathan (an adroitly funny Drew Denton), who is tragically poisoned the night of the party to celebrate his engagement to the svelte Florence Colleymore (Alison Whitehurst). Denton’s character Jonathan is a disaster at playing dead, and his klutzy fellow thespians are no help. Just about every physical object before us is going to fall down, break, or at best be misplaced, and in the case of the stretcher intended to transport Charles’ corpse, the poles were never inserted into the loops, to begin with. Jonathan makes one of the most inanely comic improvisations after his fellow cast members pretend to carry off a body and leave him lying on the ground. As with Dennis, we can still see the good side of the dream in the Society’s decision to cast Jonathan: he is handsome and might have been great without the missed cues and inability to act.
The adorable Zak Reynolds is a legit scene-stealer playing a shameless scene-stealer, Max. Max is cast as Cecil Haversham, a character trying to steal his brother’s fiancé. Max is purely in it for himself, relentlessly ignoring his fellow actors and interrupting the play’s progress to ham up his direct appeals for audience approbation. At times it is actually deserved, as when Max avoids the unassembled stretcher problem (the crew has much bigger problems than fixing it), by gymnastically attaching himself to the poles. Reynolds is irresistibly cute as Max mugs and mimes his way through dramatic dialogue. The entire cast is adorned with impressive period costumes, and Max’s Cecil is particularly delightful, sporting garish yellow lapel trim and an oversized school applique.
Reynolds and Whitehurst have fun anti-chemistry when their characters are supposed to be amorously entwined. The gorgeous Whitehurst is having a grand time as the melodramatic Sandra playing the female lead Florence, a character intended to spend the play in alternating fits of hysteria and nymphomania. And if you are offended by the limited range of female characters in the last century (and all preceding ones?), then not to worry. Whitehurst’s Sandra and Annie the stage manager (Hannah Bell) save us from boring, repetitious fits of hysteria through a series of escalating catfights.
Big kudos to fight choreographer Mitchell Stephens. The timing and visuals of the various fights are superb. The play is also wickedly clever in elevating slapstick. The stage direction and production timing fully realize the play’s comic potential.
Blake Henri is consistently convincing as Robert playing Thomas Colleymore. Robert suffers through much of the fighting, corpse-handling, inadvertent miming, unplanned fixture-holding, and general mayhem, and Henri executes good timing throughout.
Bell entertains as the hapless stage manager who has the female lead thrust upon her. The door is as close to a malicious actor as an inanimate object can get, but perhaps the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society’s negligent staging is responsible for placing both the original and substitute Florence in harm’s way. They both are knocked out by the door, fall unconscious in front of the large window, and are hilariously and most indecorously lifted off stage. We learn that offstage Jonathan stripped the glittery flapper dress and wig off an unconscious Sandra. Stage manager Annie is forced onstage to play Florence. Bell adroitly navigates the character’s metamorphosis from a terrified, unwilling cast member to a ham willing to fight for her place in the limelight.
It is hard to catalog the never-ending debacles. An erratically stuck door, falling fixtures, a lethally smoking elevator, random rotations of a hidden bookcase, and an unplanned star turn by the grandfather clock foil the play-within-a-play but make the comedy a huge success. Even beyond the challenges of “a death trap” set, the problems of mostly but not entirely knowing your lines are revealed to great comic effect. Gray and Whitehurst are wonderful as their characters say lines in the wrong order. The play is devilishly clever at the aha moment laugh—that moment when something is funny because you just figured out what went wrong. In another perfectly staged scene, Dennis Perkins holds the cast hostage in a dialogue loop. He can’t remember his line (which appropriately turns out to be “no one”), and everyone is stuck repeating the same scene until Dennis is bullied into better recalled.
I am required by Equity guidelines to state that I reviewed a “preview” – because something went wrong for real. The characters in The Murder at Haversham Manor are stuck in a snowstorm, and WaterTower Theatre had to cancel and rescheduled the original preview because of cold weather. That made the deliberately bad snow effects even more fun.
WaterTower Theatre’s sound and lighting systems do the intricately paced action justice. The light and sound designs are great at being bad. For example, we only notice a spotlight when it is deliberately off-cue. And, notwithstanding the falling-down set pieces, the dialogue is always understandable.
This regional premiere of the Play That Goes Wrong does everything right. Unless you do not enjoy laughing, you are going to enjoy this action-packed production, which runs in Addison through the twelfth before moving to Fort Worth.
Dates: February 3 through February 12, 2023
Terry Martin Main Stage at the Addison Theatre Centre
15650 Addison Rd,
Addison, TX 75001
For information and Tickets call 972-450-6232 or go https://watertowertheatre.org
The show will move from its WaterTower run to Stage West with previews Thursday, February 16 at 7:30 and Friday, February 17 at 8:00, and will run through Sunday, March 5.