The Rapidian

The Play That Goes Wrong Kills

In Grand Rapids Circle Theatre's production of The Play That Goes Wrong, dusty convention winningly stumbles.

/Circle Theatre Grand Rapids

There's a difference, of course, between a bad play and a spectacularly bad play. You know you're watching one of the former when you find yourself wondering how much time's left until intermission, and whether anyone will notice if you take off. Sure, your friend's onstage, but it's not like you're that close with her. Besides, if it were you up there, wouldn't you kind of want people to leave?

During a spectacularly bad play, you never think about leaving. As lines get missed, child actors crash into each other, and the set falls apart, you sit there aching from laughter, hardly able to believe your luck.

The Play That Goes Wrong, recently produced by Grand Rapids Civic Theatre, is by design a spectacularly bad play. Rather, it contains one: The Murder at Haversham Manor, performed by the underfunded Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, which has staged such memorable productions as James and the Peach and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cat.

The Murder at Haversham Manor sits comfortably in the world of Agatha Christie novels and the board game Clue; it's a murder mystery, in other words. Set in an English estate a century ago, it's filled with iconic types: the seemingly faithful servant (Perkins, played by Mackenzie Trevor); the femme fatale, prone to fainting and affairs (Florence, played by Katherine Searcy); the calm and competent inspector (Carter, played by Matt Hartman); and more, including, of course, the body (Charles, played by Jude Libner). 

So, yes: familiar territory. Or it would be, if things didn't keep going to hell. Despite the cast's best efforts, props get misplaced, actresses get knocked unconscious, and the second floor threatens to collapse. It's as if they want to disprove the old adge; maybe the show doesn't need to go on, after all. But go on it does.

Part of the fun is watching the chaos. But a good deal of it lies in watching the cast embrace broad gestures and over-the-top emoting. Somehow, it takes a good actor to play a memorably bad one. Particularly good at being bad are Searcy, whose Florence is a cocktail made of equal parts histrionics and seduction, and Matt Ablan, who plays Cecil with goofy innocence, like a puppy come to life. But every actor has his or her moment, and every one earned big, big laughs. I haven't even mentioned Liene Strautnieks (Annie), whose fury brought down the house.

Tom Kaechele, as director, managed to ensure that everyone was well-rehearsed, every moment worked, and no one died; he deserves a medal. The crew as a whole deserves medals, really, or at least a round of drinks. The Play That Goes Wrong is not short of technical demands. It's a measure of this production's success that audience members never had to think about how much work went into it.

I've seen several plays at Circle Theatre over the years. Some have worked, and some haven't. This, firmly in the former category, brought an old-fashioned commitment to that most old-fashioned of theatrical virtues: entertainment. A triumph.


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