The national touring production of The Play That Goes Wrong, a smash hit in London and on Broadway, begins long before the lights dim inside the Winspear Opera House.
Get there early enough, and you might bump into a tall, mustachioed man who's roaming the lobby, dressed in a suit and trailing anxiety behind him, or be lapped by a frazzled stage manager who's desperately seeking someone named Max. Find your seat inside the theater, and you'll see a hulking stage hand and a resourceful woman brandishing gaffer tape who are trying to fix various parts of Nigel Hook's set. Sit close enough, and you might be pulled up to help them.
Tour director Matt DiCarlo establishes a sense of reality early, and that's key to making this outlandishly absurd, incredibly ridiculous, completely enjoyable play by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields work at all.
It's the true definition of a farce, with slamming doors and ludicrous scenarios aplenty, and the company of eight barrels toward the finale at a lightning pace. Imagine Noises Off, Michael Frayn's 1982 backstage/onstage classic, but on speed.
Here, at a presentation by The Cornley University Drama Society, we do not get to seek the relief of backstage but remain steadfastly in the spotlight — come hell, high water, or utter destruction. Director/everything else Chris Bean (Evan Alexander Smith) is thrilled to be presenting the drawing-room mystery The Murder at Haversham Manor, in which he also plays the inspector.
But beginning with a stage hand (Michael Thatcher) who's more interested in swiping Tinder profiles on his phone than cueing up the right music, and ending with a set that's ready to crumble at the merest whisper, everything in between is a textbook-perfect display of how a production could go horribly, hilariously wrong.
Yaegel T. Welch is the murder victim at the play-within-a-play's core (though he can't seem to stay dead), and his brother (Ned Noyes), fiancee (Jamie Ann Romero), and her brother (Peyton Crim) are all suspects. So are Perkins (Scott Cote), the bumbling butler, and Arthur (Noyes again), the manor's gardener.
Everything about this complicated production appears effortless, from the acting to the technical wizardry that produces one catastrophe after another. It may look like an actor's nightmare onstage, but it's a dream to audiences who just want to laugh.
AT&T Performing Arts Center's presentation of The Play That Goes Wrong runs at the Winspear Opera House through June 16.