By Robert Heide
When I first arrived at the historic Lyceum Theatre for a Thursday evening performance, I headed straight to the box office to pick up my tickets. There, I was greeted by an attractive, smiling lady who, after a few minutes of searching and grumbling, told me that she had nothing, anywhere under my name. Upset, I glared at her protesting, “These were put aside by the producers via the press people who had told me they would be here.” “Well, come back in 15 minutes. We’ll see,” she shouted with annoyance. Returning after 15 minutes, when the curtain was about to go up, I again asked about the tickets. “What do you think?” she asked. “I don’t know,” I answered in protest. “Well here they are…” she replied grinning. “Enjoy the show. I found them on the floor.”
While being led to my close-up orchestra seat on the aisle by an usher who handed me the Playbill (with the title printed off-kilter), I noted that there was no curtain and that actors were rushing about onstage while stagehands hammered away at the set-up. From an audience member seated next to me, I later learned that this pre-set activity had been going on for half an hour. There was also a lot of screaming and yelling about some kind of disturbance that may or may not have occurred. In a box seat usually reserved for high-paying customers, a sound and lighting booth was set up in which a burly, boisterous man sat chomping away on a giant hero sandwich; he was also glaring and making faces at the audience below.
Finally, following all of the tumult and confusion onstage, the play ostensibly began. The premise of the whole production is that a provincial, amateur English acting troupe is attempting to put on a play called The Murder at Haversham Manor. The actors were in costume and in place on the elaborate country manor house set. A character named Charlie has been murdered but, for some reason, he keeps sitting up and then back down on the settee. This is a shtick spoof mystery play, which deliberately utilizes tomfoolery to create mayhem, as in a lunatic asylum. Never mind. It is all in great fun, as in a Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, or Buster Keaton slapstick film.
Right away, floorboards collapse or spring up, knocking out one of the principal actors. At one point, the murdered man suddenly decides to get up and walk out the door. When the lead actress is rendered unconscious by the same slamming door, one of the stagehands quickly dons a wig and the star’s costume and steps into the role despite not knowing the lines. The set is like a monster character itself with ceilings collapsing and walls falling down. The 12 performers do an amazing job of being in just the right place at just the right time amidst the chaos. This is comic ensemble acting at its best.
Murder suspects are lined up by an Inspector Carter who is listed in the cast of Murder at Haversham Manor as Chris Bean but is actually Henry Shields—one of the writers of the The Play that Goes Wrong. He is also listed in the spoof program as the director, designer, box office manager, press, and PR contact, voice and dialect coach, fight choreographer, and dramaturg. Needless to say, the end of this madcap who-done-it is a big surprise.
In real life, during the intermission, everyone rushes to the men’s or lady’s room, including myself. There, amidst the urinals, toilets, sinks, and hand-drying blowers, the leading lady rushes through in her bright red 1920s costume shouting, “Sorry, but this is the quickest way to get backstage.” At this point, I came to realize that my mix-up at the box office was part of The Play that Goes Wrong; the lady there was a cast member. Oh, and at the end of the second act, there is a complete collapse of the set, a marvel of ingenuity and stagecraft engineering. The play won the Laurence Olivier Award in 2015 for Best New Comedy before coming to Broadway. Leaving the Lyceum, I noticed a billboard with pictures of the cast members. One of the photos was of Leonardo DiCaprio—yes, his name was printed underneath and, no, he was not in the play.
What a great night. The Play that Goes Wrong is just right. I would not have missed it for anything except maybe a ticket to see Bette Midler in Hello Dolly.