All That's Right with 'The Play That Goes Wrong'

Skip Maloney

I’m walking into the lobby of the Lyceum Theater on 45th St. in Manhattan on a Saturday afternoon, set to take in the Broadway production of The Play That Goes Wrong, a comedy that opened in London about six years ago, and is currently in the midst of a Broadway run that will extend into August before it hits the road with shorter runs in cities from here to Los Angeles.

I’m checking the place out and chatting with this guy standing behind a wheeled kiosk, selling magnets and other related trinkets. Suddenly, a woman is bustling among the fluid crowd in the lobby, waiting their turn to enter the theater, milling about. She’s dressed in a pair of overalls, with a black, long-sleeve shirt under it. Frizzed hair jutting out at all sorts of angles. Something in my theatrical head flashes the thought ‘Stage hand, possibly stage manager.’ She has that. . . look they get when something’s gone wrong and they’re desperate to fix it.

“Have you seen a dog?” she’s asking everybody.

And everybody’s looking around. I step outside of the building and look down at the line of patrons, working their way past the first ticket check. I try to explain to the woman as I step back into the theater that it didn’t come out this way; that if it had, the people outside would likely still have been reacting to it; a dog that had slipped out and either bolted past them, or through them.

“It’s just that we have a dog in the Second Act, and he got out,” she says in passing, still weaving through the crowd, looking for some hint that the animal has just ducked between the feet of someone in the lobby.

I turn to the cashier and crack a joke.

“Well, hell, if they need a dog, I can do a pretty good one,” I tell him.

The cashier looks past me and signals to the woman, still looking around, to see if her dog’s anywhere in sight.

“This guy says he can play a dog,” he tells her.

“Really?” she asks, moving back and stopping dead in her tracks to get a good look at me. “Are you union?”

I shake my head at her, and tell her “No,” at which point my dearly beloved speaks up from behind me and says, “He’s an actor!” like it was equivalent to being the Pope.

“Let me hear you,” says the woman, extending her initial gaze downward to my toes and back up to the top of my head.

I grin at her, thinking she’s kidding me.

“What?” I ask her. “You want me to audition, right here in the lobby?”

 “Let me see what you got,” she says, accompanying the words with a direct look that says, silently, “I don’t have time for this, so if you think you can be our dog, I suggest you do it.”

In the middle of the lobby of the Lyceum Theater in downtown Manhattan, I proceed to bark like a dog. A happy one, mind you. One of those pups that’s making noise ‘cause you walked in the door. I let it go on for a bit and then stop.

“Sounds a little high,” she says, cocking her head, and saying (again), silently. “What else you got?”

I turn the bark into a ferocious threat, like one of those large animals who can make you believe he (or she) is prepared to rip your leg off if you make a wrong move.

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She listens and at the end of my ‘ferocious’ scene, she kind of shakes her head in doubt, yet possible wonder. So does pretty much everybody else in the lobby.

“Where you seated?” she asks me.

I have no idea, but the dearly beloved pops up with the row number and tells her we’re on the aisle.

“I’ll let you know,” she says and disappears, off left, as it were.

There was no dog. Never was. Her name, as it turned out, is Ashley Bryant, and she is playing the part of Annie, a stage hand in the production, who, given the show’s premise, we get to see a lot of during the course of the evening (afternoon, actually). The premise is that we, as audience, are not here to see a production of The Play That Goes Wrong, written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields and produced by a professional Broadway cast and crew, but are here, in fact, to see a production of The Murder at Haversham Manor by a community theater group (The Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society) with the best of intentions, but, as it turns out, the worst possible luck.

For the next two hours or so, we will be treated to every imaginable theatrical disaster that you can think of: from an actor, who, presumably with weeks of rehearsal under his belt, still can’t remember that a particular word is not pronounced ‘ky-a-need-ay’ but ‘sigh-a-nide,’ to set pieces that literally fall down around the actors on stage.

The disasters cascade, one on top of the other, to the point of being beyond ridiculous. Before you reach that conclusion (“this is ridiculous”) you’ll have tears in your eyes from laughing at just how ridiculous it is.

What, to me, was most interesting about the production was how well the ensemble, to include production staff, recreated chaos. The intent was to appear inept, which, at first thought, you’d think would be easy. Just a matter of screwing up on purpose, embarrassing yourself by being blatantly incompetent. How hard could that be, right?

But it is remarkably well-crafted and staged. To affect the kind of audience response that it earned so adequately, requiring a precision of purpose and execution. Split-second timing, extraordinary attention to details, an exceptional script, experienced performers and a meticulous director (Mark Bell, in this case). Check, check, check, check and check.

The experienced performers are uniformly strong and without turning this into a Tolstoy novel, I’ll opt for praise across the board for Preston Truman Boyd, Ashley Bryant (especially, for nudging me into playing an impromptu scene in the lobby), Ned Noyes, Mark Evans, Jonathan Fielding, Alex Mandel, Katie Sexton and Akron Watson (I was seeing a matinee – some substitutions from original - cast). Each of them, at some point in the production, took advantage of their opportunities to make you remember them.

And you will. As I suspect, Ashley Bryant will remember the guy she got to bark like a dog, two different dogs, out in the lobby one day.

The Play That Goes Wrong will commence a nationwide tour in September in Pittsburgh and finish up in Los Angeles next summer.

Catch it if you can.