Dallas — The old joke about defining a successful amateur production as an opening night where nobody falls off the stage comes to riotous life in through-the-rabbit-hole style in The Play That Goes Wrong, in the hilarious topsy-turvy touring production at the AT&T Performing Arts Center's Winspear Opera House.
So, what happens if the stage falls off?
The London and Broadway smash hit, written by the delightfully shameless, laugh-seeking comedy team of Henry Lewis, Henry Shields, and Jonathan Sayer, is directed with manic speed and a large dose of calculated mayhem by Matt DiCarlo, following the original Broadway direction by Mark Bell. In other words, the show is truly a belly laugh a minute. What a grand laugh-out-loud tonic on opening night Tuesday for a Dallas audience just beset by a brief, catastrophic windstorm that tore down trees, toppled cranes and left thousands of people sweating in the dark with no power and — horrors! — no Internet.
This nutty spoof of a spoof is delivered in the format of a play-within-a-play in which the Cornley University Drama Society is presenting The Murder at Haversham Manor. Our playbill has listings for characters playing the roles in both plays, but all the true havoc takes place on Nigel Hook's amazing dancing set, an English country manor house with all the requisite mantle pieces, balconies, multiple doors, hanging portraits, giant candlesticks, chandeliers and heavy metal shields you could possibly imagine crashing into in the dark — or worse.
Before the show even begins, the drama club director (long-limbed, slat-thin Evan Alexander Smith, facing calamity with a brave face) can't get the doors to open. The fireplace has come undone, and they're all searching the bathrooms for the leading lady. Once the play gets underway, however, the chaos begins to mount. The body of rich, young Charles Haversham (gifted squirming comic Yaegel T. Welch) is stretched out on the essential green velvet, gold-fringed fainting couch. Murder? Suicide? The faithful butler Perkins (greasy-weepy Scott Cote) scurries about and plops down on the corpse, doubling him in half. Then the dead man's fiancé (fluttery funny Jamie Ann Romero) drops stuff on this poor dude who's valiantly struggling to play dead.
Who did it? The age-old question of such Agatha Christie fare is made virtually moot by the larger question of which actor is going to pass out, go missing or get locked into a clock box like a broken prop. There are plenty of those, too. Still, it's fun to try to figure out the most unlikely suspect in this dastardly crime. Could it be the dead man's devil-may-care brother Cecil (light-footed, heavy-handed Ned Noyes, with a gloriously John Cleese-style maniac smile)? Outfitted in Roberto Surace's handsome lawn tennis outfit, Trevor certainly stands to gain more than the manor. Surely, handsome Robert (sturdy, athletic Peyton Crim, who’s from North Texas) immaculately British in his tweedy vest and knickers, would not have knocked off his sister's rich affianced. Would he? Well, we might find out if he can climb back onto the stage.
In fact, all these deliciously awful actors in their lovely Edwardian costumes keep running into doors, falling through windows, tripping over mislaid props and knocking each other bonkers in such rapid succession, you have to wonder if the show will go on. Meanwhile, I was laughing so hard I developed a sympathetic stitch in my side.
But, of course it does. All these determined, dimwitted thespians are committed to the show business adage, and no matter how many missed cues, broken windows and late-falling snowflakes, everybody battles through to the hilarious finish, with the audience laughing all the way.
There is wordplay and a few snickering witticisms, but the perfectly timed slam-bang collisions draw the big laughs in the show. Why? Experts say we laugh at the very incongruity of a goofy smash-up. Maybe I'm relieved it's not my head at the other end of that baseball bat. In any case, feel-good oracles say laughing together makes us feel unified, releases stress and cranks up all kinds of happy chemicals in our relentlessly busy brains.
In other words, the doctor in the house says that laughter is the best medicine and that seeing The Play That Goes Wrong is the right anecdote for a freaky storm that trashed your garden and tore your trees limb from limb. I concur.