Review: Comedy Tonight!

July 14, 2019 | By Bruce R. Feldman

"The Play That Goes Wrong," Ahmanson Theatre, July 9 – Aug. 11, 2019

In Brief: The idea for this zany play within a play seems simple enough. An amateur troupe performs a 1920's murder mystery, and everything that can go wrong on stage does. The result is inspired lunacy, an animated recital of screwball gags that keep getting more and more hilarious as the evening builds to its riotous conclusion.

As I watched The Play That Goes Wrong, I kept thinking of the moment in Mel Brooks’ delicious 1967 film The Producers when Zero Mostel, as the unctuous impresario Max Bialystock, realizes that the Broadway musical he set up to fail miserably – so that he could pocket the investors’ money, no questions asked – was going to become a mammoth hit:

From left, Scott Cote, Yaegel T. Welch, Peyton Crim, Jamie Ann Romero and Ned Noyes in the national tour of “The Play That Goes Wrong.” (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)

“I picked the wrong play, the wrong director, the wrong cast. Where did I go right?” he exclaims with equal parts of anguish and disbelief.

That pretty much describes The Cornley University Drama Society’s ill-fated production of The Murder at Haversham Manor, except that the hijinks are unintentional – and very, very funny.

The comic bits start even before the pretend play gets underway. With the house lights still up, the Drama Society’s technical crew struggles to repair a part of the set that keeps falling down. (By the end of the play we see that this is the least of the company's worries.)

Then the director walks on stage to address a ticket mix up, apologizing to audience members who thought they were going to see Hamilton.

From left, Peyton Crim, Scott Cote, Evan Alexander Smith and Ned Noyes in “The Play That Goes Wrong.” (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)

It’s all agreeably downhill from there, one madcap calamity after another. There are missing props, doors that stick shut or open when they shouldn’t, collapsing floors and walls, terrible actors who forget their lines, a last-minute substitution, and a corpse that won’t stay put.

This parody of a parody might have landed with a thud under less clever hands. That the laughs are sustained brilliantly is due to the inventive writing of Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields, the impeccably timed and tightly choreographed direction of Mark Bell and Matt DiCarlo, and the terrific performances from a cast of professionals who expertly portray hapless amateur thespians.

And then there’s that versatile, knockabout, and all-around amazing seedy-English-manor-house-on-a-snowy-night set designed by Nigel Hook, winner of a 2017 Tony Award for best scenic design.

Everything about The Play That Goes Wrong is bonkers, as well as delightfully entertaining – which is to say that The Cornley players have done it again!

"The Play That Goes Wrong, Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, 213.628.2772, www.centertheatregroup.org