Theater Review: Northern Stage’s ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ delivers constant laughs

Andrew Gombas and Izzie Steele in the Northern Stage production of

Andrew Gombas and Izzie Steele in the Northern Stage production of "The Play That Goes Wrong" in White River Junction, Vt. (Mark Washburn photograph) Mark Washburn photograph

Cordell Cole and Grayson DeJesus in the Northern Stage production of

Cordell Cole and Grayson DeJesus in the Northern Stage production of "The Play That Goes Wrong" in White River Junction, Vt. (Mark Washburn photograph) Mark Washburn—All Rights Reserved Washburn...

Izzie Steele in the Northern Stage production of

Izzie Steele in the Northern Stage production of "The Play That Goes Wrong" in White River Junction, Vt. (Mark Washburn photograph) Mark Washburn—All Rights Reserved Washburn...

By ALEX HANSON

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 03-19-2024 4:31 PM

Like any art form, theater can carry a lot of ideological freight. Mercifully, sometimes it just entertains and amuses.

And sometimes, it entertains so thoroughly that you forget everything but the present spectacle. That’s what Northern Stage’s production of “The Play That Goes Wrong” offers, a pure escape.

The conceit is simple: The amateur Cornley Drama Society is opening its production of “Murder at Haversham Manor,” what seems like a straightforward mystery in the Agatha Christie vein.

But from the get-go, the company’s struggles are plain. The question for audience members is not whether the production will run off the rails, but how, and how far.

The answer, without giving away any details: very, very far.

First performed in London in 2012, “The Play That Goes Wrong” remains in production in London’s West End theater district. It is meant not just to please audiences, but to please dedicated theater-goers in particular, which helps explain its appeal. A professional theater mocking amateur theater could easily go awry, but writers Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields of the comedic Mischief Theatre Company, which originated the play, have created such game, winning characters that mockery doesn’t enter the frame.

The upshot in “Murder at Haversham Manor” is that Charles Haversham has been found dead in the family manse on the evening his engagement to Florence Colleymoore, the sister of his best friend, Thomas Colleymoore. Summoned to the manor house is Inspector Carter, who joins a dramatis personae that includes Charles’ dissolute brother, Cecil; Perkins, the butler; Arthur the Gardner; and Winston the Dog.

These characters are played by fictional people whose spectacular incompetence is matched only by their seemingly limitless pluck. Because it’s a play within a play, the stage manager, and light and sound operator also play key roles.

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Between laughs, I marveled at how hard a show like this must be to pull off. The actors are playing characters who are themselves playing characters. What’s more, the characters are British. (A play like this could only be British, really. As things go from bad to worse for the amateur company, only Brits would carry on regardless. The humor brings P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster to mind, but it’s all bumbling Wooster and no savior Jeeves.) Making great theater is one thing, but making great theater that looks like bad theater is something else.

Director Peter Hackett had to be on his game. The play moves so quickly that one laugh would obscure the next, so the timing has to be exact. Scenic designer David L. Arsenault also had a big task in creating a set that at times seems about to completely disassemble itself.

The acting on that set is uniformly terrific. The actors also look like they’re having fun. Dominic Giovanni makes his Northern Stage debut playing the light and sound operator Trevor Watson with clueless brio, and Andrew Gombas, last seen in “Sense and Sensibility” on the Byrne Theater stage, gets some of the biggest laughs as Max Bennett, who in turn plays Cecil Haversham with his own gestural style.

Each of the amateur actors played by the professional cast has a quirk. As Sandra Wilkinson, who plays Florence Colleymoore, Izzie Steele is called on to throw hysterical fits, though there are impediments to these theatrics. Florence and the stage manager, Annie Twilloil, played brightly in Sunday’s performance by understudy Kate Budney, have a memorable pas de deux in the second act. (Caitlin Duffy plays the role in most performances.)

(A side note, Budney is one of two Hanover High and Dartmouth College graduates currently performing in White River Junction theaters, along with Jim Sterling, in Shaker Bridge Theatre’s production of “The Minutes.”)

I could go on about the cast, but suffice it to say that the production rests on their persistence. The constant laughs derive from how much the fictional actors strive to fulfill their roles, even as the action spins out of control.

As much as the play is an entertainment, maybe it does have relevance to our times, if an amusing one. It’s a disaster, but everyone carries on.

Northern Stage’s production of “The Play That Goes Wrong” runs through April 14. For tickets ($19-$69) or more information, go to northernstage.org or call 802-296-7000.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or at 603-727-3207.