Hysterical mishaps, murder and mayhem debut in “The Play that Goes Wrong” 

Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

Natalie McGovern

What happens when you stage a low-budget play that is destined to go wrong from the get go? A whole lot of shenanigans, mishaps, and nonsensical fun. “The Play That Goes Wrong” debuted at the Orpheum Theatre Oct. 30-Nov. 4 and accomplishes just that.

Most actors can relate to a play that goes awry—a prop is misplaced, an actor forgets his lines, or a set piece is haphazardly placed on stage causing everyone to improvise the entire scene.  “The Play That Goes Wrong” brings new meaning to the idiom, “the show must go on.” The show must go on indeed, amidst falling set pieces, shattering light bulbs, missed cues, faux pas and all other manner of farcical hijinks in this two-hour murder mystery comedy.

The host at Haversham Manor, Charles Haversham, has been murdered and the elusive culprit is on the loose. Florence Colleymoore, his fiancée, is so aghast she goes into fits of hysteria intermittently, while her secret beau Cecil, (who is also Charles’ brother,) seems oddly romantically distant in his own clandestine affair. Inspector Carter is a pompous investigator bent on preserving his own merit, and Florence’s brother Thomas Colleymoore has the misfortune of always being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Avid thespians will certainly appreciate this production as they can relate to the backstage (and onstage) antics of a show going terribly wrong. Overdramatic acting is delivered so well it’s plausibly funny. Given the circumstances, nearly everything that could go wrong during the play within a play goes wrong. From doors that jam and swing open to dilapidated set pieces deteriorating conveniently, it’s slapstick humor and déjà vu hilarity over and over.

The premise of the play follows that of the famed Agatha Christie’s “Mousetrap,” and is a royal flop led by an amateur college drama society. An actor that can’t play dead to save his life deadpans through almost every scene, and another actor plays to the audience not only for comic relief, but for his own sense of validation. Just when you think it can’t get any worse, the leading lady is knocked out cold and with no understudy to be found, the stage manager and even head theatre technician will suffice.

It has all the makings of some of the best comedic masterpieces of theatre: “Noises Off” and “Lend Me a Tenor”, but the play itself teeters on borderline absurdity. One thing to applaud is the production’s precise technical skill and flawless timing with the mayhem and chaos all around them perfected effortlessly. While not much character development occurred, the lively characters were fleshed out enough to give you a sense of their motives with each incriminating clue discovered. It’s scandalous, suspenseful and chock full of disaster.

The show is interactive and engaging, breaking the fourth wall more than once to involve the audience who is likely already in stitches from endless rounds of jokes and puns. The production team did their homework with their cleverly timed jest at Council Bluffs, and Nebraska’s new tourism slogan. At one point Inspector Carter mentions Thomas’ father as they glance up at the portrait hanging above them coincidentally portraying a stately, fury canine in the patriarch’s place. It’s a dry, humorous moment, but foreshadows what’s to come.

The play really ups the ante when parts of the set come crashing down, as the mise-en-scene reflects on the precarious nature of the set, complete with lackluster actors barely able to support the satire they imbue.  And who could forget the “mistaken identity” moment when the clueless stage manager standing in for the unconscious actress refuses to return to her role behind the curtain, as the two women battle it out violently on stage, playing the character of Francis Colleymoore side by side in an outright brawl.

“The Play That Goes Wrong” was inevitably a smash hit whodunit in its Omaha debut. With Murphy’s Law on its side, nothing could go wrong in a farce this over the top and hysterical.