Photo: Jeremy Daniel
We are told early in the proceedings of “The Play That Goes Wrong” that our fictional presenters of the evening, the Cornley University Drama Society, have actually produced a worse play. It was just last year, our on-stage narrator and director, Chris Bean, tells us.
And that was after a series of more recent failures, Bean is keen to inform us, including the box office mishap that led patrons into this show instead of some other one, a little known show called “Hamilton.”
But the Agatha Christie-style murder mystery “The Murder at Haversham Manor” is the play that will turn the fortunes of the Cornley University Drama Society, says Bean, who is also the drama society’s director, designer, prop maker, dialect coach, box office manager, fight choreographer, etc…
What: “The Play That Goes Wrong”
When: Through Nov. 17
Where: Walton Arts Center, Fayetteville
Cost: Starting at $32 plus fees
Tickets: 479-443-5600 or waltonartscenter.org
But if a show could fall apart more spectacularly than “The Murder at Haversham Manor,” I’m not sure what would have happened, short of the entire theater burning to the ground mid-performance – and we were dangerously close to that happening.
The devolution of the fake play “The Murder at Haversham Manor” and the crew trying to stage it is the plot driver for the very real “The Play That Goes Wrong,” the national touring production of which has stopped in Fayetteville for a series of shows that run through Sunday (Nov. 17) at the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville. “The Play That Goes Wrong” is on the second leg of its national tour. It debuted in 2012 in London before crossing over to Broadway in 2017.
What goes so spectacularly wrong for the presenting drama society in this play-within-a-play structure goes gloriously right for the audience. “The Play That Goes Wrong” has to be one of funniest, most riotous shows that’s ever been on the Walton Arts Center stage. It’s been compared to the lunacy of the Monty Python troupe, and the quintessential silliness of British comedy that’s in full force in both certainly makes that an apt comparison. But I also get some of the inventiveness of something like the Blue Man Group. There are a few scenes in “The Play That Goes Wrong” that are likewise nonverbal – and they are among the funniest bits in the show.
There’s a risk of stealing surprises, so these fall on the generic side of the pratfalls you might see during the show: falling setpieces, missed cues that lead to the playing of Duran Duran songs instead of actual sound effects, forgotten lines that send us on a frantic roundabout of a scene and an actress who has to take on a part at the very last minute. There’s a lost dog, too.
The last of those brings up another important point. Get to the theater – and if not to your seats, at least the lobby – early. And walk around the lobby for intermission if you can, too. Actors wander the halls before the show and its second act in character, looking for a snack of Skittles or the dog, Winston, who may be in the lobby and is quite vicious, the actors warn us. It’s worth seeing these antics as you file into the theater.
Photo: Jeremy Daniel
“The Play That Goes Wrong” gets a lot of things right. The actors and actresses are quite funny. Their cartoonish (and playfully purposeful) penchant for overacting is funny, and so are a few of the localized gags. There’s an Arkansas Razorbacks joke that ought to come with a trigger warning, considering how fresh those wounds are right now. And there’s a followup joke that is also bruising if you’re not still booing the actor who made the Razorback joke. There are several such interactive moments, and the Tuesday night (Nov. 12) crowd I was part of got into the show. They helped the sound tech count to 12 on a cowbell when he needed to chime the on-stage clock at midnight, for instance, and they were very vocal at some of the bigger moments.
The overall gag here is that no matter how bad things are, they can always get worse. There were a few bits that weren’t perfect, which means I think we’re talking about how a play that hopes to hilariously show you how things could go wrong got a few things wrong itself. There was a tendency to beat mediocre jokes into the ground, “Saturday Night Live” style, and keep a gag going long after it lost its desired effect. And the character-on-character violence between original actress Sandra and her last-minute replacement, Annie, felt a little extraneous. There was a level of brutality there that felt a little out of place for the tongue-in-cheek nature of the show.
But take those as a caution, and not as a reason to stay home. Tuesday night’s performance was among the funniest things that I’ve ever seen on the WAC stage in my nearly 15 years of attending shows there. It’s breathtakingly funny, and a dose of pure theater escapism.
They got doing something wrong gloriously right. Or something like that.