If you see The Play That Goes Wrong, now playing at Pioneer Theatre Company, don’t expect to spend the time before the play on your phone. As I walked into the theater, members of the “stage crew” (played by actors Harrison J. Lind, Morgan Werder and Jessica Weyman) walked through the main floor and asked audience members increasingly bizarre questions, like if they’d seen a lost dog, or perhaps a Duran Duran CD box set. Onstage, an increasingly panicked stage manager tries to prepare the set for a performance. One (un?)lucky audience member is even asked to help hold a set piece in place.
What: The Play That Goes Wrong
When: Dec. 6-21, Monday-Thursday at 7 p.m., Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
Where: Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre
How: Tickets are available on their website.
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Such is the controlled chaos of The Play That Goes Wrong, a play positively stuffed with running jokes, sight gags, wordplay and good old-fashioned farce. Once the show actually starts, audiences are immediately invited to the play-within-a-play — The Murder at Haversham Manor, a perfectly cheesy murder mystery put on by the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society. Fortunately for us, the Drama Society’s ambition far outweighs their talent. Chris Bean (William Connell,) seemingly the only member of the Drama Society’s creative team, admits that due to cast limitations, their recent musical production of Cats had to be changed to just Cat. The Murder at Haversham Manor’s plot is simple enough — there’s a rich murder victim (Brandon Contreras,) an observant detective (Connell) and a few suspicious suspects (Greg Balla, Ruth Pfredehirt and Jordan Sobel). The real draw here is not the plot but the constant onstage disasters, including forgotten lines, self-immolating set pieces and injury-prone actors.
This is not a play you go to for an ingenious plot or deep characters. Instead, director Karen Azenberg leans into the play’s endless physical comedy — the book by Henry Lewis, Henry Shields and Jonathan Sayer calls for an all-antics, all-the-time approach. The inexhaustible ensemble seems to be having a genuinely good time, reveling in the pratfalls, over-the-top line readings and many (oh so many) spit takes.
The real star of this production might be James Kronzer’s clever scenic design, which is thoughtfully engineered to handle all of the play’s tricks and treats. Both on stage and behind-the-scenes, it’s hard work to pull of this precise band of physical comedy. This show requires as much discipline — and more creative thinking — than your average realistic drama. It can take serious smarts to play this dumb.
The crowd in my performance ate it all up. This kind of brazen physical comedy can be truly universal. Of course, the most ridiculous comedic choices strained credulity, especially in the show’s less engaging second act, but it’s best to just accept the madness and embrace a show that, against all odds, goes on and on.