Here’s a tip. Once the doors at ASU Gammage in Tempe open, don’t hang around in the lobby, go straight to your seat. Take the time to look through the program, or the Gambill. Like the 1982 Michael Frayn comedy Noises Off, there’s a program within the program of the play-within-a-play incorporating a fake cast list, fake bios, some fake ads, and a letter from the president of the Cornley University Drama Society, the team of English amateur-dramatic players who are about to present an Agatha Christie-styled mystery, The Murder at Haversham Manor. It’s like reading a section of Mad Magazine Goes to the Theatre. And for the record, there’s also a real cast list and some real bios.
Then when you’re done, look up at the set. The curtain is already raised. Take in the reproduction of an English manor, the kind that would make Professor Plum or Miss Scarlett feel right at home. Look at it and know that it’ll never look like that again. Once the play begins, much is going to fall apart, and by the conclusion, one that might impress even Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin, the whole thing is going to… well, that’s for you to see.
Even before the play has officially begun, and the house lights are still on, there are things happening. Some of the (fictional) backstage staff are busy fixing things on the set that won’t quite function. The door won’t properly close, some props are not where they’re supposed to be, and the mantelpiece is broken. Plus, the (fictional) lighting and sound operator, Trevor (Brandon J. Ellis) can’t find his Duran Duran CD and asks the audience to hand it in if anyone finds it. With the help of an audience member who is asked to come up and help, the stage manager Annie (Angela Grovey) exits and leaves the audience member on stage, alone, holding up part of the set, unable to move.
Everything you need to know is in the title. The Play That Goes Wrong is about a play that goes spectacularly wrong when a troupe of some really bad English actors is given the chance the present their play in front of a larger than usual crowd.
The play’s (fictional) director, Chris Bean (Evan Alexander Smith) who also made the props, designed the costumes, manages the box-office, choreographed the fights, designed the set in addition to a couple of other backstage roles, addresses the audience and begins by explaining exactly who the Cornley University Drama Society is. Normally the players work with only a low budget that can’t quite cover all the costs of a large-scale production, which explains why some of their last plays included The Lion and The Wardrobe, the musical Cat, and James and the Peach. Sadly the peach they were using for that last production went sour during the run, so they re-titled it James, Where’s Your Peach? But for The Murder of Haversham Manor, the players have received a substantial contribution, giving the am-dram society the chance to present something considerably grander. And it goes horribly wrong.
The comedy, which in its way is a kind of distant second cousin to Noises Off, begun in London in 2012 and has been running continuously ever since. Bookings are still being taken until October of this year. The play was such a success that it already has a sequel, Peter Pan Goes Wrong, but it’s the original you’ll see this week with the national touring cast in Tempe, running now until March 24.
There’s little point in explaining plot. What happens in the play-within-a-play is so convoluted it won’t matter who killed Charles Haversham. Besides, you won’t hear much of the dialog. It’ll be drowned by the sound of the laughter that will bounce off the walls of the Gammage auditorium until the volume hurts your ears. Doors will stick, props will be misplaced, lines will be forgotten, an elevator will get stuck, and floors will collapse. And that’s just for starters. At one point, the director, who also plays the detective, turns to the audience and demands that everyone stop laughing. “What’s wrong with you people?” he cries. “Why can’t you be like this woman sitting there? She’s sat there for forty-five minutes and hasn’t laughed once!”
After having read all of the above, the one thing you need to ask yourself before going is, is this kind of comedy for you? It wasn’t for the family of four seated nearby who left their seats within twenty minutes of the play and never returned. On the other hand, it was for the young girl seated by my side who turned to her mother during the intermission and said it was the funniest thing she’d ever seen.
The Play That Goes Wrong could make you hyperventilate. Really. It could also wear you down. It’s not only the cast who get a thorough work out. Long before the somewhat lengthy, chaotic conclusion arrives where just about everything is lost and both you and the cast have no idea where things are heading, you might feel equally exhausted.
But whether it’s the wordplay, the pratfalls, or the undeniably clever design of a collapsible set, you’re going to laugh at something, and when you do it’ll be louder than you usually laugh. When that director admonishes Gammage for laughing and insists “They would never have behaved like this in Tucson,” like the audience at a pantomime, it takes everything you have not to shout back, “Oh, yes they would!”
The Play That Goes Wrong continues at ASU Gammage in Tempe until March 24
Pictures Courtesy of Jeremy Daniel