Review: ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ at the Kennedy Center

A bust-your-gut funny play-within-a-play that will make you realize how long it has been since you laughed till you cried

Even before the curtain officially goes up on The Play That Goes Wrong, you can tell you are in for a laugh riot.

The show’s “Director” Chris Bean (played by Evan Alexander Smith), “Stage Manager” Annie Twilloil (played by Angela Grovey) and “Lighting and Sound Operator” Trevor Watson (played by Brandon J. Ellis) are walking through the theater, trying to fix some of the show’s remaining problems before they begin their opening night performance. I was in the section deemed “The Danger Zone” and we were informed that while safety chains on the lights up above had regrettably been forgotten, they had secured the lights with duct tape so it was “probably” safe to sit there. The set itself was also having some problems including a door that just would not stay closed and a mantel that would not stay attached. If you already guessed that these things would cause problems later on in the story, you are correct.

(Angela Grovey, Yaegel T. Welch and Jamie Ann Romero in 'The Play That Goes Wrong' at the Kennedy Center. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.
(Angela Grovey, Yaegel T. Welch and Jamie Ann Romero in ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ at the Kennedy Center. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Speaking of the set, the curtain is open when the audience arrives, so be sure to take a good look at it. Designed by Nigel Hook, it is the quintessential English manor house. Featuring an upstairs section without any railings and, for unknown reasons, an elevator, the set you see is the only set in the production. As the play progresses, you’ll notice that it is practically a character in the show all by itself, with pieces falling down (or not) at the most inopportune times. You will have to remember what that set looks like at the beginning because by the end of the show, that look will be just a memory.

Once the play, written by Henry Lewis, Johnathan Sayer, and Henry Shields, officially begins, the laughs get quicker and harder. The story is a play within a play format. The Cornley University Drama Society is presenting a murder mystery entitled “The Murder at Haversham Manor.” The characters are listed in the playbill as both the characters they play in The Play that Goes Wrong and the characters they will play in “The Murder at Haversham Manor.” For example, Jamie Ann Romero plays Sandra Wilkinson (her name in The Play that Goes Wrong), and Sandra Wilkinson plays Florence Colleymoore, a character in “The Murder at Haversham Manor.” I can only hope that as a reviewer I successfully identify each of these outstanding actors by the correct name as each member of the ensemble cast add his or her own unique stamp to this excellent show.  

Right from the start of “The Murder at Haversham Manor,” there are problems with the production that the bumbling actors and stage crew can’t help but make worse. A murder has been committed and poor Charles Haversham (Yaegel T. Welch) is dead, right there on the sofa. Or is he? Thanks to incompetent actors who continuously step on him or drop things on his body, the “dead” Charles is forced to do a little more acting than a dead body is allowed. In addition, practically every minute of the show is filled with the characters calling for their lines, dropping set pieces, or knocking each other unconscious.

Peyton Crim, Yaegel T. Welch, and Jamie Ann Romero in 'The Play That Goes Wrong' at the Kennedy Center. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.
Peyton Crim, Yaegel T. Welch, and Jamie Ann Romero in ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ at the Kennedy Center. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

All of the performances of this production are noteworthy, but I especially enjoyed Ned Noyes as Max Bennett playing Cecil Haversham. Ned plays Max with a happy-go-lucky flair where you can’t help but root for him to succeed against all odds. I also enjoyed Scott Cote as Dennis, playing the Haversham’s butler Perkins, and Peyton Crim as Robert Grove, playing Thomas Colleymoore in the production. Peyton’s voice is straight out of the British murder genre, and his ability to not break character as all hell is breaking loose around him is admirable.  A (fake) ad for “Robert Grove’s School for Acting Perfectly” is included in the Playbill and it touts his ability to teach the “four approved acting skills: Reacting, Gesturing, Emotioning, and Acting,” all of which Peyton Crim has clearly mastered.

Throughout the story, the laughs are fast and furious, and no matter which type of comedy you favor—slapstick, physical, wit, pun, or situational—you’ll find something to laugh at here. If I was on a date, I would name this the best date night ever, as you will both leave in a great mood with plenty to discuss.

If I have anything to complain about, it is that none of the actors looked young enough to be in a University Drama Society show. But with the sheer amount of laughs (I literally pulled a muscle in my back laughing so hard), this one slight criticism is, um, laughable.

For the kind of laugh riot you need during this crazy holiday season and beyond, head over to the Kennedy Center to see The Play that Goes Wrong. But you might want to stretch first—your funny bone will get such a workout that you are likely to be sore all over before the show is over.

Running time: Two hours and 20 minutes with one 20-minute intermission

The Play That Goes Wrong plays through January 6, 2019, at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Eisenhower Theater–2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 467-4600 or go online.