You can easily make your own joke linking the title The Play That Goes Wrong with Florida Studio Theatre’s efforts to stage it—delayed multiple times by Covid-19. What can go wrong, does go wrong, indeed. And on the Saturday night that I attended the show when it finally was able to open, this farce—a play taking place within another play dubbed The Murder at Haversham Manor—added one more mishap to the pile. Let’s just say, the butler did it.
No, I’m not giving away the identity of the killer here. Rather, it’s the actor behind the role of Perkins the butler, Scott Cote, that I’m referring to. Apparently, he injured himself somehow, meaning that Will Luera had to step gamely into his costume and character, while relying on the script in his hand to deliver his lines. It’s a testament to Luera’s long experience with improv (he’s director of improvisation at FST) that he’s able to do it and still garner his share of the laughs onstage.
And there are plentiful laughs to be had in this Olivier Award-winning comedy by Henry Lewis, Henry Shields and Jonathan Sayer, which first made its bow a decade ago in England but is new to Sarasota. The setup: the West Palmetto Drama Society (a nod to our neighboring town to the north, perhaps?) is presenting the aforementioned The Murder at etc., in a production that couldn’t be more hapless. Set pieces are constantly falling down around the cast, lines are forgotten or repeated ad infinitum, words are mispronounced, actors are injured and replaced—and replaced again—and the corpse we meet in the opening scene absolutely refuses to stay dead.
Nevertheless, the actors and the stage manager valiantly struggle on, determined to make it to the curtain call. There is a metaphor for life in there somewhere, if you’re willing to look for it.
It’s all extremely silly, of course, but that’s the fun of it. (Extra points for the fake program cast bios within the real thing, which read all too believably.) The Play That Goes Wrong reels from disaster to disaster, sometimes at almost blinding speed (under the experienced direction of Bruce Jordan and, one imagines, with the invaluable aid of stage manager Roy Johns and his crew). And, at just about two hours including intermission, unlike some farces, this one doesn’t wear out its welcome.
I won’t divulge the plot details at length here, but a nod to the characters is in order. Besides the butler, there’s Charles, played by the society’s “Jonathan” (Timothy C. Goodwin), the early victim of the crime; his younger brother Cecil, played by “Max” (Jordan Ahnquist), who doubles as Arthur the Gardener; Florence, played by “Sandra” (Jacqueline Jarrold), who’s engaged to Charles but in love with Cecil; her possessive brother Thomas, played by “Robert” (John Long); and Inspector Carter, played by “Chris” (Gil Brady), trying to solve the murder amid the madness. Oh, and there’s also the harried stage manager, Annie (Emily Berman), and lighting/sound man Trevor (Freddie Lee Bennett), the only person who couldn’t care less if the show goes on.
Whew! That’s a lot to keep track of, but there’s more: a missing dog, invisible at the end of its leash; a jug of paint thinner the actors have to keep swigging whenever the word whisky is mentioned; a swordfight; a budget-size snowstorm; and more well-timed blows to the head than anyone should have to suffer.
It’s all done with high energy and spirit, and while the cast members are all excellent, I especially enjoyed Ahnquist as Cecil/Max—he’s perfect as the cute but naughty showboater who actually seems to enjoy the mayhem around him. Props also to scenic designers Isabel & Moriah Curley-Clay, costume designer April Andrew Carswell, and sound designer Thom Korp, for all those noises on and off.
The Play That Goes Wrong continues (we hope!) through March 27 in FST’s Gompertz Theatre. For tickets, call (941) 366-9000 or visit floridastudiotheatre.org.