Should the show go on?

1812 Productions presents Theatre Mischief’s The Play That Goes Wrong

3 minute read
The ensemble onstage: two miming death (one on a couch, one on the floor), and four shocked crew members crowding in a door.
Pure entertainment: 1812’s ‘The Play That Goes Wrong.’ (Photo by John Flak.)

The title of this play is obviously a rhyming reference to “the show must go on,” even if it did take me almost a week to realize it. However, the hysterical conceit of 1812’s The Play That Goes Wrong, a farce originally conceived by Theatre Mischief and directed here by Jennifer Childs, is how far that belief can possibly go, as disaster rapidly unfolds onstage. Running through May 21, 2023, at Plays & Players, this gleefully funny play is as pure as entertainment on the Philadelphia stage can get.

The Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society has been through some hard times, as evidenced by their small revivals of James and the Peach and Cat. After receiving a big inheritance, the troupe hopes to finally put together a strong production of the Mousetrap-esque murder mystery The Murder at Haversham Manor. However, as we in the audience watch, their best-laid plans literally fall apart along with the cheap, crumbling set.

For one thing, the amateur players are mostly egregiously, deliriously bad. There’s a corpse who can’t ever stay dead, plenty of bad English accents, and Dennis Groff (Sean Close) repeatedly mispronounces “cyanide.” Play-within-the-play director Chris Bonham-Carter (Anthony Lawton), who also plays the Inspector, is slightly more competent, but can barely rein in his frustration with the other characters. There are also dozens of problems with the props, like the painting which keeps moving off the “mansion” wall. In one set piece, cast members hold up pieces of the set as they struggle to say their lines.

Desperately funny

What makes The Play That Goes Wrong funny rather than pathetic is each player’s desperation never to break character. They stick to the script (or try to) even as cast members are knocked unconscious right in front of them and a Duran Duran song breaks out during a crucial scene. The poorly accented thespianism lies somewhere between It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and bad Shakespearean acting. But the joke, like all intentionally bad performances, is the attempt at sincerity when suspension of disbelief has already left the building. How far will an actor go to stick to a script? How much can a story provide structure in the midst of sheer mayhem?

This conceit really requires something special: the ensemble, playing actors and crew members, who’re also reciting lines in a play, while also reacting to events and each other in real time. The 1812 artists, including Melanie Cotton and Lawton, are more than up to the challenge. The horrified, frustrated, and baffled expressions from everyone involved just make the unacknowledged insanity around them so much funnier. It takes a lot of strong choreography and good blocking to capture awful stage direction, and Childs (with assistant director Mikaela Boone) never misses a beat.

A big highlight as well is performer Justin Jain as Maxwell Santiago-Ramos, an actor meant to be portraying a grieving brother and murder suspect. But the character is so eager and excited to be onstage that he ends up beaming on the line “I’m so unhappy!” and loudly pantomiming every word to the audience. This isn’t a comedy with a strong emotional core, but the increasing enthusiasm of Max and replacement actor Annie at treading the boards is truly infectious.

Uninterrupted laughs

At two hours and 15 minutes with intermission, The Play That Goes Wrong almost overstays its welcome. Many comedies steer themselves into sentiment for the second half, but luckily for 1812 audiences, this one only escalates in mayhem. By the time the curtain fell, the theatergoers thoroughly matched the busted set, except they were collapsing with laughter instead. The 1812 artists tell us they believe in comedy, especially in an increasingly dark and uncertain world. Fortunately, this isn’t the kind which interrupts the laughs with a serious message. It just invites you to join in on the chaos. This is one of the best local theater productions of the year.

What, When, Where

The Play That Goes Wrong. Written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields; directed by Jennifer Childs. $40. Through May 21, 2023, at Plays & Players Theater, 1714 Delancey Place, Philadelphia. 215-592-9560 or


The Plays & Players auditorium is wheelchair-accessible, but its restrooms are located down a flight of stairs.

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