Stiff upper lips quiver in ‘Play That Goes Wrong’
BOSTON – We all know how well the Brits do the standard murder mystery.
They have fed us a steady diet of the genre through the BBC for decades.
But what if a rather iffy British theater troupe – one so bereft that it had to produce Chekhov’s “Two Sisters” or the musical “Cat” – took on such a show, with limited resources.
And what if everything that could go wrong did go wrong? What would that look like? Would those stiff upper lips the Brits are famous for start to quiver?
You don’t have to wonder anymore. That’s the whole idea of the Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s production of “The Play That Goes Wrong” now through Dec. 18.
The play is the brainchild of Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, who direct the Mischief Theater, a British theater company founded in 2008 by a group of students from The London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art in West London.
Before the show begins, actors and stagehands are wandering about the theater and onstage, making repairs to the English manor drawing room set which will quickly become a House of Horrors.
We soon learn that a British amateur troupe – the Cornley University Drama Society – is about to present a 1920s murder-mystery called “The Murder at Haversham Manor.”
The director and president, a one Chris Bean (Michael Liebhauser) is unabashedly optimistic the show will succeed and the audience not be disappointed, even if they originally were supposed to be seeing “Hamilton.”
Farce is a delicate balance and it can easily go off the rails. But the premise of stiff-upper-lip Brits soldiering on no matter which actors go down, which prop is either missing or not working, and which walls are falling down all around them is so convincingly portrayed and acted that “The Play That Goes Wrong” holds together well even when all is pretty much lost.
That’s because director Fred Sullivan Jr.’s cast is all in, the only way the piece can be performed. And Sullivan also must coordinate the split-second timing required to keep the piece in one piece.
The playwrights delighted in littering the set – reproduced for Lyric by set designer Peter Colao — with potential time bombs, including an elevator to a second-floor study, a study that seems tenuously supported at best, and a sound and light board operator who seems preoccupied with eating.
The production values are key to the show’s success. Kudos to John Malinowski, lighting; Dewey Dellay, sound; Gail Astrid Buckley, costumes; Karissa Roberts, props; and stage manager Josh Rodrigues.
As the play within the play opens, a murder has been committed, and soon the corpse of murder victim Charles Haversham (Dan Garcia) – killed during his own engagement party in the drawing room – will be moving voluntarily and involuntarily in a hilarious variety of ways.
This piece is very much a cousin to Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off,” the gold standard of this genre, which told the tale in a different fashion – from a backstage view – but where chaos also reigned.
The writers have also lovingly but effectively poked fun at the murder mystery genre itself, fashioning stereotypical theatrical “types” that almost anyone who has trod the boards will recognize, such as the unbearably hammy, pleased-with-himself Marc Pierre as Cecil Haversham and the manor’s aged gardener, Arthur.
Sandra (Nora Eschenheimer) is the vampy Florence Colleymore, Charles’ fiancee, understandably “hysterical” at his death. It turns out, though, she has actually been having an affair with Cecil.
Robert Grove (a wonderful Kelby T. Akin) is Florence’s brother Thomas, whose life is constantly being endangered by things such as phone lines and a collapsing study.
Called in to untangle the mess is the intrepid Inspector Carter (Liebhauser in a dual role) who will prove inept at solving the crime but excellent at missing clues and being completely incompetent.
There will be a second murder, more crawling corpses, and things will, incredibly enough, continue to go downhill.
The piece does repeat some gags over and over. The character of Florence is folded, spindled and mutilated – something like the exploding drummers in the mockumentary “This is Spinal Tap” – but she keeps bouncing back for more.
The part of Florence ends up being played by a succession of folks: first Sandra, then stagehand Annie Twilloil (Alexa Cadete), who is forced into action, script in hand, when Sandra goes down for the count one more time. Twilloil then becomes impossible to dislodge until she, too, goes down for the count. Finally, the sound and light man (Mitch Kiliulis) inherits the role, with a droning recitation of the lines and a decidedly unenthusiastic portrayal of Florence’s “hysteria.”
Dennis Tyde (Dan Whelton), playing the butler Perkins, will make it a habit of completely mangling words and rendering them unrecognizable.
Yes, it is funny. Often convulsively so. But the pratfalls arrive at such a frenzied pace there are times you would wish a couple of seconds of relief to absorb the one before the next one hits home. I was as exhausted as the players, who were enduring two hours of very physical comedy.
Still, if pratfalls, mishaps, and chaos are your game, “The Play That Goes Wrong” presents them artfully, and, by the end, those stiff upper lips on stage are starting to quiver.
The Lyric Stage Company of Boston production of “The Play That Goes Wrong.” Directed by Fred Sullivan Jr.. Written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayrer and Henry Shields. At the Lyric Stage Company of Boston through Dec. 18.