The tone for the farce that is The Play That Goes Wrong is set long before the curtain rises. Frazzled cast members wander the audience, asking questions such as if anyone has a dog they can borrow for the second act, as others attempt to fix the constantly malfunctioning set. An audience member is even brought on stage to help literally hold the scenery together. Once the action begins, it does not slow down for a second, with the hijinks and laughter coming seemingly a mile a minute.
The Play That Goes Wrong, written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields, debuted in London in 2012 before running on Broadway for nearly two years from 2017 to 2019. It is now playing Off-Broadway as well as touring the US, and opened Wednesday at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles to a very receptive audience. It is a good, old-fashioned farce reminiscent of the classic Noises Off, and its broad comedy and slapstick humor evoke a simpler time. Sure, there is not much happening beneath the surface—the plot is not deep, and what you see is what you get—but if your sense of humor responds to people repeatedly getting hit in the face with doors and doing spit-takes, you will almost definitely have a roaring good time watching this show.
The set-up is a play within a play—the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society is putting on The Murder at Haversham Manor, which they chose because it has exactly the right number of roles for their company. In the opening speech, the show’s director (and costume designer, prop maker, box office manager, publicist…), Chris Bean (Evan Alexander Smith) mentions the challenges a lack of members and funding have presented for previous productions, such as the singular Cat and a twist on James and the Giant Peach after an incident with the star prop titled James, Where’s Your Peach? And, of course, this production does not turn out much better.
You name it, it goes awry—actors miss cues, no thanks to the perpetually distracted lighting and sound operator, Trevor (Brandon J. Ellis), or they arrive onstage for a cue an entire act early. Props are nowhere to be found, leading to a vase of flowers standing in for a notebook, and a portrait of a dog having to pass for a portrait of a character’s father. Actors are all over the place—Dennis (Scott Cote) regularly mispronounces words and immediately beats himself up for it, while Max (Ned Noyes) loves the spotlight so much that he constantly breaks character to wave to the audience. By the end of the performance, three separate people end up playing the lead female role due to a series of onstage accidents—when original ingenue Sandra (Jamie Ann Romero) is literally knocked out, stage manager Annie (Angela Grovey) is thrust into her role, and later a third person whose identity I will not spoil must step in. And, most notably and most impressively from a stagecraft perspective, the set (Nigel Hook, a Tony winner for it) slowly and elaborately crumbles around the performers, leading to some of the very best physical comedy bits of the night.
Directed on tour by Matt DiCarlo, the cast is required to be at the top of their game, given the specific timing and advanced physical comedy the piece demands. Whether pratfalling or catching props thrown from across the stage, the disarray is immaculately choreographed. Of course, some jokes overstay their welcome, and if slapstick is not your cup of tea, you may not find certain bits laugh-out-loud funny, but the vast majority of the opening night audience sure seemed to. The standout of the cast is Noyes, who is just hilarious as Max, who gets adorably proud of himself whenever the audience responds positively to something he’s doing, resulting in him going more and more over-the-top in search of more laughs. Jonathan (Yaegel T. Welch), who plays the actor tasked with playing a dead body, gets some of the most memorable moments of the show because he’s not so great at acting, well, dead. The best jokes are the ones that are finally paid off after being set up very early on—for example, when the actor who keeps showing up early for a big entrance finally nails it, the crowd went wild.
Overall, The Play That Goes Wrong is a fun night of theater that people of all ages can enjoy. While it may not be profound, sometimes it’s just fun to laugh at someone repeatedly getting knocked out and not think about it too deeply—theater is a form of escapism, after all, and this romp certainly fits that bill.
The Play That Goes Wrong runs at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre through August 11th. The running time is 2 hours and 5 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets start at $30 and can be purchased here. Download the TodayTix app to enter a daily digital lottery to win the chance to purchase up to two tickets for $25 each. After Los Angeles, the tour will play San Francisco, Sioux Falls, Richmond, and many other cities—for more information and tickets, click here. In New York, tickets for the Off-Broadway production at New World Stages start at $75 and can be purchased here.