There’s been a mix-up, and the Cornley Drama Society has landed on Broadway. Though student interest is usually low—the Society is mostly known for its productions of Two Sisters, The Lion and the Wardrobe, and Cat—this time around the number of parts matches the number of actors. But the optimism behind The Murder at Haversham Manor is misguided; in fact, the staging could very well prove the crowning example of Murphy’s law.
Now, there are not nearly enough farces on Broadway; neither are there enough murder mysteries. Combining the two genres seems like a fairly ingenious idea, and yet The Play That Goes Wrong tries far too hard and ultimately fails to ground its action in reality. The performance notes advise the actors, “Everything in the show must of course be played for truth and not for laughs or parody. For Cornley this show is not a comedy, its a serious play and it is so important to them all that it goes well.” This is a sharp observation, and yet it is oddly unheeded by the cast of the play. The performances are execrable rather than poor, and the choices made in the face of disaster are calibrated for the greatest laugh rather than for authenticity. At one point, Dennis (Jonathan Sayer) forgets his next line. He offers one from earlier in the scene, forcing his peers to move backward and repeat what the audience has just watched. This happens four times in a row, allowing for progressively frustrated and rushed-through readings. But would anyone really do this? Would anyone perform the same dozen or so lines over and over again instead of, say, improvising a solution? If the answer is “no,” the schtick fails.
And once we no longer believe the characters—that is, the actors rather than their parts in the play-within-the-play—we can no longer laugh at their failures. The Play That Goes Wrong should be funny because everyone is trying to make it go right, but instead we are offered a series of implausible, high-pitched, over-the-top exercises that have more in common with an overlong improv sketch than a carefully-planned Broadway comedy. Little work is done to distinguish the personality of the actors, their range of emotions limited to panic and anger. Sure, Max (Dave Hearn) appears uneasy kissing his female co-stars and over-eager to kiss his male ones, but a whiff of gay panic hardly constitutes a fully fleshed-out role. At the end of the day, there aren’t nearly enough revivals of Noises Off or The Real Inspector Hound to justify this cheap and disappointing imitation.