Theater is a refined medium powered by elegant prose in which professional thespians dig deep to don new personas and bring unique stories and settings to life. It’s live art — the field of Shakespeare, Beckett and Arthur Miller — with no time for post-production or correction. When done right, audiences are transfixed by compelling stories and feel as if they have been taken to a fully realized world.
That’s not what happens in The Play That Goes Wrong.
Rather, as the name suggests, The Play That Goes Wrong follows a play within a play where everything that can go wrong does — a sort of Murphy’s Law of drama. The Olivier and Tony Award-winning comedy opens at the Ahmanson Theatre in Downtown Los Angeles on Wednesday, July 10 (with a Tuesday preview). It continues through Aug. 11.
Written by Henry Shields, Henry Lewis and Jonathan Sayer, the two-act play debuted in 2012 in London, before a Broadway run in 2017 that resulted in a Tony for set design. An ongoing tour started the following year. The show features eight cast members and, according to director Matt DiCarlo, the action is identical to that mounted on Broadway.
Were mishap not to befall them, The Play That Goes Wrong would follow a young theater company, the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, which is expertly performing The Murder at Haversham Manor. That’s a cliché-filled, by-the-books murder mystery in the vein of an Agatha Christie thriller.
There’s a real art to making things go wrong, according to DiCarlo. Thus, he said the first thing the cast and crew did during rehearsals was perform Haversham Manor fully without error, to learn what they “should” be doing, so they could mount the stage version where things go off the rails.
Then come the screw ups, whether due to arrogance, misfortune or something else.
“The thing I love about this show is that, in order to make it go wrong, you have to make it if it went right,” he said.
Just how wrong things go is the point. Over the course of the two-hour play, actors “forget” their lines, “miss” their marks and have to repeat scenes. Props fail, pieces of the set fall apart and the injuries steadily rack up. There’s even a dead body that can’t keep still.
A central member of the show is Chris Bean (played by Evan Alexander Smith), who not only directs Haversham Manor, but also decides to produce and star in it. Bean is, in Smith’s words, a control freak, and Smith theorizes Bean himself wrote the trope-filled play.
Smith originally caught The Play That Goes Wrong on Broadway before joining the cast. He said that while he laughed almost non-stop, watching it was like seeing his nightmares come to life.
“Just about every single traumatic experience anyone in theater has ever had has been lovingly crafted into this play,” he said.
The production is rapid fire, a never-ending stream of cringe comedy. Smith said it leans toward farce, but doesn’t go over the edge. Part of the dramatic balance, DiCarlo said, is that despite their stumbles and insecurities, the characters draw in audience members’ sympathies.
“As things fall apart, it’s fun to watch these people get out of each problem and carry on,” DiCarlo said. “It’s a troupe of eight people. They’ll do whatever it takes to make it to the end. It’s easy to root for them; we get to see them work so hard as a unit to drive to the end of the play.”
The scenery depicts the stage for Haversham Manor, and DiCarlo said the show never leaves that set to explore backstage drama. Despite the limited space, he said, audiences can learn from the “actors” in the “show,” as their personalities bleed through as they encounter trouble.
For Smith, that comes in the form of Bean’s increasing exasperation as his cast keeps screwing up, and his anger rises as he tries to keep moving forward. Smith said that Bean views the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society as a group doing high drama, even when the situation is nothing close to that.
“Who they are just bubbles up underneath their characters,” he said. “For me, I just have to keep trying to reinvest in the plot. With Chris, I’m there to be the bouncing board for everyone’s lunacy.”
With repeated effort to draw attention to intentional errors, DiCarlo said that The Play That Goes Wrong can seem like it’s blurring the line as to what is planned and what is an actual mistake.
“That’s another thing I love about this show: No matter where I watch it, it’s amazing to see people gasp and cheer,” he said. “There are moments almost every show where people are asking, ‘Is this really happening and is this part of the show?’”
The Play That Goes Wrong runs July 9-Aug. 11 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. or centertheatregroup.org.