Thursday, March 21, 2019


Perhaps the theatre's most cherished maxim is that the show must go on. The company performing The Murder at Havershaw Manor certainly seems to have taken it to heart. From the first few lines of the wheezy old drawing-room murder mystery, set pieces fall off the walls, doors fail to open, an actor who is supposed to seem dead reacts, understandably enough, when his hand is trodden on. Duran Duran ends up, unintentionally, among the music cues. All in all, it becomes The Play That Goes Wrong.

This British farce by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, which opened in the West End in 2014 and on Broadway in 2017, is a spectacular piece of slapstick escalation. The premise is that we're seeing the "am-dram" (amateur dramatics; what we would call community theatre) production fall apart while we watch, but as the show progresses--if that's the word--we may not be prepared for the silent-movie/Looney Tunes degree to which, for instance, the shoddy set will collapse around the actors.

There's a human element to the catastrophe as well; one actor keeps mispronouncing multisyllabic words, another simply refuses to take the show seriously, smirking at the audience and capering around for our approval. The long-suffering stage manager has to step in and take over when the leading lady is incapacitated; when she returns, her replacement is reluctant to give up the role. And throughout, the comedy hinges on the tendency of actors, when a show is going badly, to focus on what's least important.

The frenetic yet disciplined cast is truly ensemble. But a word should probably be said for Peyton Crim as Robert (aka "Thomas Colleymoore" in the play), who, in the midst of, say, being buried in furniture as a platform sags under him, still manages to use his beautiful deep voice to maintain a weary dignity.

The splendid irony behind The Play That Goes Wrong is that, unlike the play within it, it goes off like clockwork. The timing and physical commitment of these actors is a joy to watch, and also a thrill--there are moments that seem dangerous, though this is (I hope) an illusion. Many of the show's biggest laughs, however, are in its slow-burn pauses, in which a performer realizes the extremity of what he or she is up against. Laugh-out-loud funny as this show is, the company's determination, against ever-worsening odds, to get to their curtain call may ultimately seem allegorical for life, the ultimate Play That Goes Wrong.

The Play That Goes Wrong runs through Sunday, March 20 at Gammage Auditorium. Go to for details.

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