Things go perfectly off the rails in Pioneer’s hilarious “Play That Goes Wrong”

Sat Dec 07, 2019 at 1:21 pm
By Catherine Reese Newton
Eric Santagata (seated) and Brandon Contreras in The Play That Goes Wrong at Pioneer Theatre Company.

What if the cast and crew of Nothing On — the play-within-a-play in Noises Off — were even less competent?

They might end up presenting something like The Play That Goes Wrong, the madcap comedy by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, which opened Dec. 6 at Pioneer Theatre Company. And while the play itself isn’t as clever as Michael Frayn’s iconic door-slamming farce, Noises Off, smart direction by Pioneer’s Karen Azenberg and the razor-sharp timing of both the actors and technical team make for a highly entertaining production.

The Play That Goes Wrong revolves around The Murder at Haversham Manor, a caricature of the British whodunit genre, as performed by the woefully underfunded and underskilled Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society. Pratfalls, missed cues, technical snafus and a protracted round of spit takes ensue.

It can be frustrating that, aside from some amusing pre-curtain bits, the audience sees only the outermost layer of this enterprise; watching good actors play bad actors only gets you so far. A fun exception is the plot twist that finds mousy stage director Annie (Kirsten Wyatt) transforming into a roaring, yet supremely untalented, lioness when deadly earnest frustrated diva Sandra (Ruth Pferdehirt) briefly yields the spotlight. But then, the playwrights don’t pretend to be Tom Stoppard; they’re out to make you laugh, and if the opening-night audience is representative, they’ve succeeded.

The real appeal of The Play That Goes Wrong is in its staging. Even if you’re not a fan of slapstick, you can’t help but marvel at the intricate choreography on display at Pioneer. Greg Balla, as would-be thespian Robert (and Thomas Colleymore in The Murder at Haversham Manor) stands out with a performance of astonishing athleticism and virtuosity. Brandon Contreras in his own actorly, role-within-a-role has a memorable turn as the world’s most resourceful corpse.

The rest of this Rube Goldberg contraption of a plot is kept in motion thanks to William Connell as the manor mystery’s uptight director and star, Chris; Eric Santagata as a miscast actor, Dennis, in the inevitable role of the butler; Jordan Sobel in not two but three interlocking roles; and Archelaus Crisanto as a low-energy stage tech. 

And then there’s James Kronzer’s set, which becomes a full-fledged character through a series of wildly funny, even heart-stopping, mishaps. (Production stage manager Mary P. Costello and the rest of the crew deserve some of the credit here.) If you’re looking for an evening of unabashed escapism, The Play That Goes Wrong is just right.

The Play That Goes Wrong runs through December 21 at the Pioneer Memorial Theatre,  801-581-6961;

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