Review: “The Play That Goes Wrong” is so right
Review: "The Play That Goes Wrong" makes wrong feel so right
Murphy’s Law states that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Meanwhile, the rule of the stage is “the show must go on.”
These two rules collide with a flourish and a bang in The Play That Goes Wrong, which kicked off at Syracuse Stage on Friday. Written by the British trio of Henry Lewis, Henry Shields and Jonathan Sayer and directed by Syracuse Stage Artistic Director Robert Hupp, the show is a classic play (entitled The Murder at Haversham Manor) within a play. It’s a murder mystery that, well, goes wrong, in just about every way imaginable. The production is a self-conscious, uproarious farce in the tradition of Monty Python that doesn’t so much break the fourth wall as gleefully obliterate it.
The immersive experience begins before the house lights go down – indeed, before the audience even enters the theater. A handwritten sign taped to the ticket podium that says “no, this is not Hamilton, so please stop asking” is the first indicator of the cheeky humor that infuses the play. As the audience ambles in, crew members make last-minute adjustments to the set. One member tears off pieces of blue duct tape with her teeth as she attempts to repair a white marble mantlepiece. The audience starts chuckling before the play even begins.
Czerton Lim’s set, the interior of a sumptuous mansion with teal, patterned wallpaper and crimson drapes, is a marvel of engineering and design. Doors get stuck shut, paintings fall and curtains collapse, hitting their marks more expertly than the actors of Haversham Manor do. The actors of The Play That Goes Wrong, on the other hand, commit wholeheartedly to the over-the-top physical comedy and hammy performances. Both the set and the cast pull off extraordinary stunts with precision.
Jason O’Connell, last seen at Syracuse Stage in the biting satire Eureka Day, is a standout. He plays both the increasingly apologetic director of The Murder at Haversham Manor and the detective within the show who comes to solve the titular murder. The actors all put on affected British accents, thanks to the splendid work of dialect coach Celia Madeoy. O’Connell’s accent is especially plummy and ostentatious. He renders the director’s mixture of smugness and groveling with gusto, and merrily delivers rapid-fire punchlines and clever allusions. The director appears at the beginning of Act 1 and Act 2, but curiously, does not materialize at the end of the show — a final appearance would have been a gratifying button.
Angie Janas, as Florence, the fiancee of the murder victim, gives another deliciously showy performance. She leans into the physicality of the role, punctuating every line with a shoulder shimmy or a dancerly pose. Unfortunately, she is offstage for large portions of the show. After a histrionic fainting spell leaves her character unconscious, the beleaguered cast enlists an initially reluctant female crew member (Kate Hamill) to fill in for the role. This leads to a cringe-inducing fight between the only two women in the cast in the second act, as Janas’ Florence regains consciousness and the actresses grapple for the spotlight. This unnecessary female competitiveness and a kiss between two men that’s played for cheap laughs are the two weakest moments in the show. With so much rich comedic material, using a catfight and playful homophobia for laughs feels like a retrograde cop-out.
The play canters along at a breakneck pace, leaving no punchline unsaid and no comedic gold untouched. The sheer rate of jokes per minute – pratfalls, ingenious visual gags, absurd mispronunciations, and more – can be dizzying, and the relentlessly high energy is almost manic. The show has no levels, no peaks and valleys, that might have allowed some of the jokes the breathing room to enhance their impact. Even so, it’s a raucous tour de force of genuine cleverness, going wrong in all the right ways.
The Play That Goes Wrong runs until May 1. Get tickets on the Syracuse Stage website.