In “The Play That Goes Wrong,” a meta comedy about a disastrous play within a play, the problems befalling a woebegone cast and crew begin before the show itself. At the Kravis Center, where the production runs through Sunday, actors work the aisles during the preshow, searching for a lost dog that will figure prominently in the second act. The fictional lighting and sound director (Trevor Watson) makes last-minute adjustments to the set, like installing missing floorboards.
We can tell something’s amiss, because even the production’s playbills have been wittily misprinted. But the first sign that something’s really wrong is the onstage door that won’t stay closed—a harbinger of the countless mishaps to come.
We’re here to witness “The Murder at Haversham Manor,” a creaky drawing-room whodunit in the mold of “The Mousetrap” or “An Inspector Calls”—the sort of stuffy, cliché-riddled mystery that opens with the discovery of a cadaver and concludes with the murderer’s tidy revelation. Chris Bean (Chris Lancey) is both its “director” and star player, a tweedy detective named Carter who is summoned to discover which of a small clan of motive-rich aristocrats murdered the manor’s namesake, Charles Haversham (Chris French), on the day of his engagement party.
Chris Beam’s theatre company, though, is a ramshackle outfit, and the pleasures of “The Play That Goes Wrong” derive not from the mystery’s resolution but from the domino effect of inside-theatre calamities that turn a run-through of a play into a veritable combat zone. Lighting cues are missed, so that when the curtain rises, we see the “dead” character crawling to his perch on the central fainting sofa. An actor’s personal cell phone tumbles from the pocket of one character’s coat. Actors constantly miss their marks and step on each other’s lines and, owing to the soundman’s incompetence and inattention, the audio is filled with missed cues and glitches.
Some props begin to fall off the walls of the set, seemingly of their own accord, while others were misplaced to begin with, like the “whiskey” that’s really paint thinner, and which the actors are supposed to swig to calm their nerves. Instead, we get a number of boisterous spit-takes. And this is just Act One, the preamble to the manic, apocalyptic destruction of the second act.
“The Play That Goes Wrong” is not what you’d call sophisticated theatre. Heavy on physical comedy, it’s anchored by jokes that were already losing their novelty on “The Three Stooges.” There are only so many times we can watch a door slam on a character’s face, or an actor simulate a “hysterical fit,” or indulge in yet another flammable spit-take. There’s also a tendency for the director—the real director, Matt DiCarlo—to let pregnant pauses play out for so long they nearly give birth, stretching the genuine witticisms to their actual breaking point, and we begin to look at our watches. I was surprised to see a substantial exodus of the Kravis Center’s audience during intermission; clearly, this is not a show that will appeal to all tastes.
It’s worth sticking it out, though, because the pacing lulls of Act One give way to the expertly staged, gonzo freneticism of the second act, a nearly nonstop ratcheting of technical snafus that leaves the stage, and the cast, a shambles. Nigel Hook’s scenic design, which won the 2017 Tony Award, is an intricate marvel, a deceptively sturdy structure designed every day to be destroyed, complete with moving parts and trick magnets and other tools of a magician’s trade. Wait until you see what happens to the manor’s second-floor study.
The double—nay, triple—acting is terrifically on point, with each player conveying both their stylized, deliberately over-the-top murder-mystery archetype as well as the frazzled actor underneath it, who must constantly adjust to scenes gone awry. “The Play That Goes Wrong” is only able to sustain itself for two and a half hours because the actors playing the actors playing the characters struggle always to maintain the fiction despite the breakneck mishaps surrounding them at all times—to solve problems and improvise and cover for each other, as if by just McGuyvering this one problem, they’ll be back on track again to solve the damn murder at Haversham Manor. I’m sure Agatha Christie would admire their dedication.
The Broadway tour of “The Play That Goes Wrong” runs through Sunday, Dec. 15 at the Kravis Center, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. Tickets run $40-$85. Call 561/832-7469 or visit kravis.org.