“There’s a fine line between stupid and silly”, my astute friend remarked during “The Play That Goes Wrong”, the British farce currently onstage at Branford’s Legacy Theatre. Like the intimate theatre’s previous production of “Beauty and the Beast”, this new offering is a play that demands a far larger venue since it requires a grand Gothic set that proceeds to collapse throughout the evening. It’s another “B” for effort at Legacy.
“The Play That Goes Wrong” by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, premiered in London in 2012 and won an Olivier for Best New Comedy. It opened on Broadway in 2017 where it played until 2019 before transferring Off-Broadway to its current home at New World Stages. The long shadow of a truly classic backstage farce, “Noises Off”, hangs over “The Play That Goes Wrong” and suffers significantly in comparison. The silly/stupid observation here is apt because “Noises Off” was very silly and outlandish, but never stupid. “The Play That Goes Wrong” depends on characters having stupid reactions to catastrophe when, in reality, it would be funnier if they just reacted realistically and tried to keep the show going through sheer will.
In “The Play That Goes Wrong” we meet an amateur troupe experiencing a doomed opening for its thriller “The Murder at Haversham Manor,” a whodunit in the tradition of Agatha Christie classics. At rise we discover a corpse (Nick Fetherston) with murder suspects who include his vampy fiancée (Mary Mannix), duplicitous brother (Isaac Kueber, singularly hilarious in two roles), dedicated manservant (Thomas Beebee) and mysterious inspector (a valiant Jimmy Johansmeyer) among others.
The play soon grows tiresome but some of this is no doubt due to Keely Basiden Knudsen’s often tedious direction slowing down reactions and repeating gags that were barely funny on their first try. Mr. Beebee reading cue lines written on his hand is a prime example here. Although the enthusiastic audience appeared to be lapping it up, I found the cast working very, very hard to make the material funny and it showed. For farce of this kind to excel, it has to appear effortless.
Although the theatre is far too small to pull off a definitive production of the comedy, kudos have to be given once again to Legacy’s MVP, scenic and lighting designer Jamie Burnett. He somehow finds a way to jerry rig one disaster after another on the Legacy’s cozy stage as a fireplace mantle plunges, floors collapse and exterior walls come tumbling down. Good for him! It looked like a lot of work. So is sitting through “The Play That Goes Wrong”.
“The Play That Goes Wrong” continues at the Legacy Theatre, 128 Thimble Island Road, Branford, Connecticut through October 1. For further information, call: (203)315-1901 or visit: www.legacytheatrect.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and the Stratford Crier and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: email@example.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.com.