By Sarah Downs

It’s official.  We can laugh again.  Time to go see The Play That Goes Wrong.  Director Matt DiCarlo has let the cast loose on this wonderful farce with but one instruction:  go for it.  No laugh remains un-milked; no scene un-stolen; no wink un-winked.  Not even the furniture is safe.  At the zoo they tell you not to feed the animals, but for the actors of The Cornley University Drama Society, it is just the opposite.  A steady diet of laughter and applause facilitates the breeding program.  Thus the gags have gags, and double takes have given birth to triplets.

Chris Bean (Matt Harrington), the long suffering producer/director/costume designer/prop master/chief cook and bottle washer of the hapless drama society, has valiantly fought for years to produce quality theater – or at least accurate theater – with his trusty band of loyal amateurs, whose devotion to act-ING is unparalleled.  To say Bean has been thwarted at every turn would be too modest.  Clearly the Muses have a beef with him and neither Thalia nor Melpomene is EVER going to cooperate.  Nevertheless, he persists.  Thus, tonight’s offering:  “The Murder at Haversham Manor.”

As the curtain rises, Charles Haversham, noble scion of the Haversham family (and corpse extraordinaire) lies center stage on a chaise.  Jonathan Harris (Chris Lanceley) as Charles has a tough time keeping life and limb together, but he demonstrates a talent for improvisation.  You have to hand it to Jonathan; he may spend most of his time utterly confused, but he is at least consistent!  As his beautiful fiancee Florence Colleymoore, Sandra Wilkinson (Maggie Weston) daring in her lipstick red flapper dress, wiggles with amorous delight.  Bright and brittle, Sandra is not going to let dropped cues or missed entrances stop her.  When she is in the throes of acting, it’s best to get out of her way.

Joining her is master scene stealer Jesse Aaronson as the wide-eyed, ever grinning Max.  He cannot resist laughter, or the chance to acknowledge his own applause.  To him the idea of ‘sharing’ stage is purely theoretical.  As Cecil Haversham, brother to the deceased, Max is 1920’s youth incarnate, dashing around in natty, striped University blazer and wingtips.  He is every young woman’s fancy, if you like ’em dumb.

It is Thomas Collymore who discovers Haversham’s body.  Robert Grove (Brent Bateman) at Thomas arrives on the scene ready for melodrama.  Decked out in yet another of Roberto Surace‘s perfect costumes, Robert makes quite an impression.  There nothing like a statuesque man dressed head to knee in a mustard, checked hunting suit, with argyle socks.  It’s just magnificent.  Max’s togs may be “anyone for tennis?” but Roberts are “anyone for shooting?”  Bateman also possesses a musical, resonant baritone speaking voice, which he uses to maximum effect.  Thomas shares the moment of discovery with the Haversham’s aging butler Perkins.  (We know he’s aging because of the white shoe polish in his hair.)  Dennis Tyde (Bartley Booz) as Perkins tries to keep it together, but what is a man to do when the traffic snarl devolves into mayhem?

True to form, the manor’s inhabitants stubbornly maintain the fomality of being waited on, even in this madness.  In service of playing a servant, as it were, Dennis finds himself the driving force in one of the most brilliant scenes in the play, involving Inspector Carter, Thomas Collymore, Perkins and a very special bottle of whiskey.

Ah yes, Inspector Carter … (a/k/a Chris Bean a/k/a the Director (a/k/a Matt Harrington)).  After about five minutes, you can bet this Inspector deeply wishes he hadn’t called.  He spends the entire play a few steps behind the 8 Ball.  Bean just cannot catch a break!

From the moment you enter the theater you enter the world of the Cornley University Drama Society. Blurring the line between reality and performance, stagehands hustle across stage making last minute adjustments which you are pretty sure will not work.  The wonderfully wrought Great House set by Nigel Hook seems to teeter eternally on the brink of disaster.  Nevertheless, Trevor Watson (Ryan Vincent Anderson) and Annie Twilloil (Ashley N. Hildreth) soldier on.  Little do they know how much  ‘keeping it together’ they will be required to do by mystery’s end — or how much they will love it!

The actors are brilliant.  Layering the humor with grand gestures, small touches, broad comedy, pregnant pauses and, of course, next level physical comedy, they take every opportunity to make sure the ridiculous occurs.  In this manner The Play That Goes Wrong bounces from absurdity to hilarity to chaos — but no matter — when everything goes wrong, all is right.

The Play That Goes Wrong, co-written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields; directed by Matt DiCarlo.  With Jesse Aaronson, Ryan Vincent Anderson, Brent Bateman, Bartley Booz, Matt Harrington, Ashley N. Hildreth, Chris Lanceley, and Maggie Weston. The cast also features Damien Brett, Laura D’Andre, Ellie MacPherson, and Sid Solomon.  Set design by Nigel Hook, costume design by Roberto Surace, lighting design by Jeremy Cunningham, and sound design by Beth Lake.

Presented by Mischief Theatre at New World Stages, Stage 4 (340 West 50th Street).  Runs two hours, with one intermission.