Playwrights Henry Lewis, Henry Shields, and Jonathan Sayer have made a career out of calling out the little mishaps, miscues, and occasional missed lines that take place during most theatrical productions and pumping them with steroids.
Their first, The (One-Act) Play That Goes Wrong, is a raucous play-within-a-play that premiered at the Old Red Lion Theatre in London in 2012 before a two-act, Tony Award-winning rendition made its way to Broadway in 2017.
In the one-act work, currently being performed by Austin Playhouse, we witness the underfunded, inept, and accident-prone Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society experiencing everything that can go wrong in their opening night performance of The Murder at Haversham Manor. an ambitious one-act 1920s murder mystery. The wealthy Charles Haversham (Chase Brewer, as the actor Jonathan playing Charles) is found murdered and everyone – his brother Cecil (Ben G Bazan, as the actor Max playing Cecil), fiancé Florence Colleymoore (Liz Beckham as the actor Sandra playing Florence), her brother Thomas (Tobie Minor as the actor Robert playing Thomas), and the butler Perkins (Huck Huckaby as the actor Dennis playing Perkins) – is a suspect according to Inspector Carter (Scott Shipman as the actor and artistic director Chris playing the Inspector).
The show starts with a stuck door that keeps the actors from making their opening entrances, and soon escalates into a full-on tsunami of hilarious technical malfunctions (courtesy of scenic designers Lara Toner Haddock and Mike Toner, lighting designer Mark Novick, and sound designer Robert S. Fisher) and all kinds of human incompetence. Still, the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society players continue to perform the play no matter the absurdity, resulting in an abundance of well-timed double-takes and recurring sight gags (many designed by fight choreographer Tobie Minor) that keep on gagging.
This production offers more than just an evening of side-splitting schadenfreude. We also bear witness to some really good bad acting, which is a feat that is harder than it seems. In the high-end circus extravaganza Cirque du Soleil, there’s an act where a lovable clown attempts and spectacularly fails at performing the death-defying feats previously executed by the company’s world-class acrobats. In order to find the funny in the failure and not kill themselves in the process, that clown is actually the best acrobat in the company. The same goes for this cast, where Minor proves himself to be the master of the slow burn, Huckaby owns dumbfounded exasperation, Shipman’s abrupt shifts from calm to rage and back again are works of art, and Beckham and Bazan’s spit-takes and physical comedy are top-notch.
Unfortunately, the pre-show where the actors meander onto the stage and the stage manager (Sarah Chong Harmer) does some last-minute repairs is found wanting. All this is really just a way to get the audience introduced to the actors before they play their parts, which eventually informs the humor, and for the stage manager to call attention to props that will prove instrumental later on. But it is aimless, arduous, and void of Ben Wolfe’s efficient direction. The same can be said for the curtain speech performed by the lighting and sound operator (Trevor Watson). Ditto for Harmer’s tentative performance as the stage manager, particularly when her character is called on to be the emergency substitute for an unconscious Florence Colleymoore. The show is plenty funny, but these are all missed opportunities for more comedy.
The Austin Playhouse has certainly had its share of things that go wrong (Covid, a sewage flood). In light of this, while the play on stage is about all that goes wrong in live theatre, this terrific production is a celebration of all that goes right.
The (One-Act) Play That Goes Wrong
Austin Playhouse, 405 W. 22nd, austinplayhouse.com
Through Dec. 18
Running time: 60 mins.
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