If you’re looking for a cure from the winter blues, a way to forget your personal troubles or just enjoy laughing until you’re blue in the face for two hours, there can be little argument that The Play that Goes Wrong has all the right stuff. And now that that this uproarious confection by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields has settled in for a hopefully long Off-Broadway run at New World Stages (after nearly two years on Broadway), this bracing tonic should be available for your consumption whenever you need a pick-me-up.
The show’s concept is far simpler than its execution: An amateur acting troupe is putting on their first performance of an Agatha Christie-like murder mystery called “The Murder at Haversham House.” And we can tell even before the hilarious opening speech by the artistic director/lead actor Chris (a drolly dry Matt Harrington) that this group is out of their depth. The set is still under construction, the dog that plays a key role in the play is missing, and lighting and sound operator Trevor (Ryan Vincent Anderson) is obviously a little too concerned with his missing Duran Duran box set.
But once things get underway, to say circumstances go from bad to worse is mere understatement. Lines (and even entire scenes) are forgotten. One of the actors consistently mispronounces key words, even though they’re written on his hands. Dead bodies don’t stay dead. And several performers come close to losing their lives thanks to the constantly collapsing set (the true star of the play, magnificently designed by Nigel Hook, who won a well-deserved Tony Award for this effort.)
It takes an expert cast of comic actors, here directed to perfection by Matt DiCarlo, to pull off such sustained silliness. And while there’s not a weak link in this comic chain, particular kudos belong to Matt Walker, who displays an delightfully uncontrolled hamminess (as well as an obvious distaste for women) in essaying the dual roles of Cecil and Arthur; Ashley Reyes, who seems more like a budding chorine who has fled a tour of Chicago than a femme fatale while portraying the role of Florence; and Bianca Horn, whose transformation from timid stage manager Annie to ultra-determined spotlight-stealer (when she has to suddenly step into the role of Florence mid-play) is simply delightful to behold.
Admittedly, if you’re not a fan of slapstick, this enterprise can feel like a painfully extended sketch from The Carol Burnett Show or Monty Python’s Flying Circus. But I suspect everyone else will happily go along for the ride – a theatrical roller-coaster with some nifty twists and turns, far more ups than downs, and a satisfying landing. In fact, don’t be surprised if you line up to immediately buy another ticket.