The musical Avenue Q gave a word to most Americans for a concept they knew well. It was a concept that drove almost all comedy, and certainly comedic farce. It wasn’t a comedy driven by jokes or puns, or almost anything that was said. It was schadenfreude, the experience of pleasure, joy, or self-satisfaction that comes from learning of or witnessing the troubles, failures, or humiliation of another.
Schadenfreude is at the heart of the final production of the Ahmanson Theatre (FB)’s 2018-2019 season: The Play That Goes Wrong, written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields as a Mischief Theatre production in London. Bottom line up front: this is the funniest thing I have seen on stage since the first time I saw Noises Off in the original West End production at the Savoy.
The premise of The Play That Goes Wrong is a simple one: an amateur British theatre company, the Cornley University Drama Society, has been afforded the honour through a British-American Cultural Exchange Program of presenting a play on tour in America: The Murder at Haversham Manor, written by Susie H.K. Brideswell. Unfortunately, during the production, everything that can go wrong during the production does. Miscues. Misplaced props. Non-cooperating sets. Bad actors. Technology issues. Trying to summarize the story is pointless — the story exists only to provide a framework for the mayhem, and the mayhem is so rapid-fire that trying to describe it is (a) impossible, and (b) would destroy the humor.
Suffice it to say that your fun starts before the show when the actors are out in the audience getting things set up, and continues until the end of the curtain call.
Pulling off a well-timed farce like this requires strong direction to get the movement and blocking right — one wrong move and actors could get seriously injured. Tour director Matt DiCarlo (FB) luckily gets this right, building on his experience as the Production Stage Manager for the original Broadway production, as well as the original Broadway direction by Mark Bell. DiCarlo has honed his acting ensemble to split-second precision, while making it look completely disorganized on stage. That’s actually a skill to have order behind the comedy chaos. He is aided by Nigel Hook‘s scenic design, which supports the actors by failing in a predictable and controlled way while making it looks like chaotic failure. It really is a remarkable design, and I feel sorry for the technicians that must reset it every night, and ensure that it survives the tour scathed only in predictable ways (one can’t call a set that fails unscathed).
Similarly, the acting ensemble manages to perform precise physical and stage comedy while appearing completely amateurish. That’s not to say bad. This is ostensibly an amateur theatre company, so the first part of the acting is to make yourself look unskilled. It’s like a wonderfully talented singer intentionally singing bad without making it look intentional, which is really hard work. This company does that in a believable fashion, while precisely hitting their marks and being their to make their other company members look good. Or is that bad. With this play, you never know.
The company consisted of the following talented performers: Brandon J. Ellis (FB) Trevor Watson – Lighting and Sound Operator; Evan Alexander Smith (FB) Chris Bean – Inspector Carter & Director; Yaegel T. Welch (FB) Jonathan Harris – Charles Haversham; Peyton Crim (FB) Robert Grove – Thomas Colleymoore; Scott Cote (FB) Dennis Tyde – Perkins; Jamie Ann Romero (FB) Sandra Wilkinson – Florence Colleymoore; Ned Noyes (FB) Max Bennett – Cecil Haversham; and Angela Grovey (FB) Annie Twilloil – Stage Manager. I’d like to highlight a few of these performances.
Ned Noyes was hilarious with his playfulness and recognition that the audience was there, dropping in and out of character to just have loads of fun. Evan Smith was similar — he kept trying to keep controlled while everything was collapsing around him, and his pleading to the audience not to laugh was just remarkable. Both of the technicians — Angelea Grovey and Brandon Ellis were hilarious both before the show, and after they got drafted to be on stage. In general, the comic playfulness was high and that joy came across to the audience.
Understudies were: Blair Baker (FB), Jacqueline Jarrold (FB), Sid Solomon (FB), and Michael Thatcher (FB). I’ll note Sid Solomon is an AEA council member who was active in the Pro99 discussions. I hope he’s had the time to see and visit the LA theatre scene while the tour has been in Los Angeles.
Turning to the production side: I’ve already mentioned the great scenic design of Nigel Hook; I’ll note there’s a great discussion of this on CTGs 30 to Curtain podcast, in an interview with Kevin McCollum, one of the producers. Credit should also go to Bay Scenery Ltd UK, which built the scenery. Roberto Surace (FB)’s costume design was believable for the nature of the show, and had the right level of playfulness. Ric Mountjoy‘s lighting design was well executed in support of the mayhem, and for the most part, Andrew Johnson‘s sound design was clear and crisp, with good sound effects (there were a few points of muddled sound). Especially for this show, the contributions of Michael Thatcher (FB) Fight Captain; Blair Baker (FB) Asst. Stage Manager; Sharika Niles (FB) Stage Manager; and Jeff Norman Production Stage Manager deserve acknowledgment, as they are integral to making the mayhem happen precisely and without injury. Rounding out the production credits: Stephen Kopel CSA US Casting; Allied Touring Tour Marketing and Press; The Booking Group Tour Booking; David Benken Production Manager; Jose Solivan Company Manager; Bespoke Theatricals General Management. Producers include Kevin McCollum, J. J. Abrams, and Ken Davenport.
The Play That Goes Wrong continues at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) through August 11, 2019. Go see it, it is hilarious. Tickets are available through the Ahmanson website. Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar and TodayTix.
This is our last show as subscribers to the Ahmanson 2018-2019 Season. Over all the shows across CTG’s three theatres in 2019-2020, there were only three of interest. We didn’t renew our subscription; we’re buying single tickets instead.
Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Soraya/VPAC (FB), and the Musical Theatre Guild (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.
Early September is also mostly open. Then things heat up, with the third weekend bringing Barnum at Musical Theatre Guild (FB), and the fourth weekend bringing Blue Man Group at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). We start getting busy in October, starting with The Mystery of Irma Vep at Actors Co-op (FB). The next weekend brings Anastasia – The Musicalat the Hollywood Pantages (FB). The third weekend brings us back to the Kavli for The Music Man at 5 Star Theatricals (FB). October concludes with Mandy Gonzalez at the Soraya/VPAC (FB).
Looking to November, it starts with A Miracle on 34th Street – The Radio Play at Actors Co-op (FB). The second weekend brings Summer at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) and The Goodbye Girl at Musical Theatre Guild (FB). November concludes with a hold for Bandstand at Broadway in Thousand Oaks. Somewhere in there we’ll also be fitting in Nottingham Festival and Thumbleweed Festival, if they are happening this year. Yes, there are a lot of open dates in there, but I expect that they will fill in as time goes on.
As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-Lemons, Musicals in LA, @ This Stage, Footlights, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget. Want to learn about all the great theatre in Southern California? Read my post on how Los Angeles (and its environs) is the best area for theatre in the Country!