The Play That Goes Wrong stabs you in the funny bone over and over. A mastery of pratfalls and a love letter to bad acting (cowritten by Mischief Theatre company members Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields), the comedy is such an adrenalin rush, audiences at the Ahmanson Theatre will be panting heavier than the actors forced to contend with a collapsing set.
The fictional Cornley University Drama Society's troupe of talentless actors performs a putridly stale murder mystery — and (spoiler alert) everything goes wrong. Actors forget lines, the set crashes around them, props are in the wrong place or have been swapped out for inappropriate substitutes, actors bang into each other, and a stage hand takes over for a lead role even after the original actress has returned to the stage, resulting in a brawl.
The laughs are hearty and build throughout the evening. However, the play lacks the organization and genius of Michael Frayn's Noises Off — the theatrical apex of farce to which The Play That Goes Wrong invites comparison — so the evening doesn't resonate after the curtain falls. Each character has a quirk to separate them from one another: One can't remember his lines, so he writes large words on his hand only to mispronounce them, while another lives for the '80s band Duran Duran to the detriment of his duties. But without any back story or context explaining who these actors muddling up the evening are, the humor feels frivolous. Punch lines become repetitive, and the play coalesces into nothing more than a list of crazy events that run out of steam by the end.
While the script may be loosely constructed, the direction by Matt DiCarlo is precise. Each actor times every fall, slip up, and exasperation perfectly, so that the cast as a whole is a symphony of calamity. Ned Noyes hilariously plays Max, the overly jovial showoff who would rather ham it up for the audience than stay in character. As Chris, the hapless director who ineptly attempts to hold the runaway show together while also playing the inspector, Evan Alexander Smith is defiant, breaking the fourth wall constantly by scolding the audience for laughing at this supposedly serious play.
Jamie Ann Romero and Angela Grovey throw down onstage as dueling versions of the same ingenue with such alacrity that it looks like each is drawing blood from the other. Peyton Crim, as Robert, has the agility of an acrobat as he forbids gravity to conquer him when the floor beneath him goes from horizontal to almost vertical. As Dennis, the actor who can't remember his lines, Scott Cote hilariously misinterprets words and causes an exhausting loop of dialogue at the end of Act 1 because of a misplaced cue. Yaegel T. Welch is a hoot as the corpse who can't stop fidgeting. And as the sound man who couldn't care less what's going on around him, Brandon J. Ellis is brutishly hysterical.
The play's star is the Tony Award-winning set by Nigel Hook with a collapsing second floor cluttered with furniture, sliding slowly toward the audience. That this death trap somehow manages to survive night after night is a miracle of theater. The costumes by Roberto Surace, meanwhile, cleverly reveal the tackiness of low-budget drama, while sound designer Andrew Johnson makes every slap, smack, and crash appear real and painful.
A definitive embodiment of an actor's nightmare, The Play That Goes Wrong illustrates just how much talent is required to appear wholly untalented. Every gesture has been measured so that the cast gets maximum laughs from the audience — and though those laughs may be built on a foundation as fragile as the Cornley University Drama Society's set, this calculated evening of anarchy deserves credit for getting wrong so right.