For a play that has only one joke — and gives it away in the title — "The Play That Goes Wrong" is surprisingly successful.
It features a play-within-a-play that's a parody of "The Mousetrap," an Agatha Christie mystery in which a snowstorm strands a bunch of strangers in a remote house, along with a corpse and a happened-to-be-in-the-neighborhood police inspector. "The Murder at Haversham Manor" is enacted by a shockingly inept company, making good on "The Play That Goes Wrong" title. Actors take ill and/or are terrible. Props malfunction. Cues get so confused that one scene is performed five times in a row.
The key thing in favor of "The Play That Goes Wrong" is that its joke is a good one: what's referred to in the biz as "the actor's nightmare," in which one must perform a play one is not prepared for. It's always fun to see folks heroically carrying on in the midst of disaster. And the comedy is mighty inventive in the disasters it creates for its actors, who are assisted (or not) by a lighting and sound guy whose only real interest is finding his misplaced Duran Duran CD box set. Without giving away too much, I'll just note that, due to indisposed actors, one role ends up being played by three different people and a grandfather clock — and the clock gives the savviest performance.
Theater fans will recognize that "Play" has two obvious ancestors: "Noises Off," where the actors performing in a farce watch it crumble around them, and "The Real Inspector Hound," an absurdist comedy that also parodies "The Mousetrap." Twin Cities theater fans are especially apt to note the similarities, since the Guthrie performed both plays within the past three years. And theatergoers will undoubtedly note that both are much cleverer than "The Play That Goes Wrong."
For me, it started to go wrong around intermission, when one actor shouted, "You're a terrible audience!" I didn't take it personally, but it's hard not to notice that there's something effortful and almost mean-spirited about "Play." Instead of doing the best to soldier on like harried pros, the actors in the play-within-"Play" are a little too pleased with themselves and, as we watch jokes being laboriously set up, it's a little too obvious where they're going.
The internal logic of "Noises" and "Hound" is impeccable, but "Play" stretches credulity in search of laughs. One example: The performer who doesn't know how to pronounce certain words is funny the first couple of times but, by the fifth time, you're wondering why nobody told this dolt how to say "cyanide" during rehearsals. I wonder if I'd think the same thing if "Play" were the swift 90-minute, no-intermission show it obviously should be.
Don't get me wrong, I chuckled often and I'd recommend the comedy for anyone who needs a laugh (i.e., almost anyone). But I nitpick about these flaws to explain why, after the momentum-killer that is intermission, "The Play That Goes Wrong" starts to become "The Play That Gets Wearying."