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San Jose stage show goes wrong in a good way

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SJM L WRONG 1126 01

“The Play That Goes Wrong” may seem like a less hilarious farce and a more painful documentary.

Witnessing the Cornley University Drama Society dumpster fire hits close to home for those who have ever participated in an amateur drama production operating on a limited budget. Unanswered lines, improvisations through an actor’s missed entrance, and devastating head injuries that force a stage manager to turn to an understudy to save the show – sound familiar, actors?

What works smartly about the play, running at the San Jose Stage Company through Dec. 17 after a delay of more than a year, and with a mostly new cast, is the way the two acts are structured so equal, the first act establishing nice payoffs in the final frame. Director Kenneth Kelleher’s work is often great in terms of action. His ability to construct scenes requiring complex timing fits divinely into a show of this style.

The issues of the play were present during personal viewings of the show in New York, London and the Bay Area. Jokes can fall on the stale side and become predictable as the story progresses. Not every visual gag is a laugh riot, and not every implausible situation appears magnificently. The play is the kind of physical farce that often requires perfect execution, but thanks to the sincere and earnest unity among the eight highly skilled actors, perfection is not necessary for the fun to be maximized.

The play begins with a certain hilarity built on the wit. The company’s director, Chris (Jonathan Rhys Williams), is tasked with informing the public of some unfortunate budgetary constraints that have had serious consequences on past production titles. Think “James and the Giant Peach,” except with a tinier fruit that eventually rots and leaves the show. But today is a new day, smooth production awaits you.

But is this the case? The play within the play is “The Murder at Haversham Manor,” a murder mystery that goes in unfortunate directions. Charles Haversham (Johnny Moreno), wearing a tuxedo jacket, is a murder victim who struggles with staying murdered and constantly needs to find creative ways to depict his death while still reaching his target.

The characters assigned to work the murder scene are ready. Perkins (Keith Pinto) is a plastic-wigged butler with 80 years of service who can’t pronounce the words written on his hand. Max (Sean Okuniewicz) gets all the oxygen he needs via audience approval. Thomas Colleymore (Will Springhorn Jr) spends most of the play sipping paint thinner while trying not to fall off a platform, while his tragic sister Florence (Maggie Mason) is a dazzling ingenue who seems be paid for by the concussion.

Any hot mess of a play must have two dedicated nobles, i.e. the stage management team, trying to seal the little iceberg piercing the Titanic. These include Taylor (Nick Mandracchia) who has absurd tasks like trying to find a missing dog necessary for the second act (a payoff from Okuniewicz that is quite hilarious).

Her equal is Annie (Vivienne Truong) who takes care of business behind the scenes, except when she is forced into duty by yet another losing battle between Sandra’s head and a wooden door.

Williams moves away from his audience introduction and leads the action as Inspector Carter, the man who sheds light on a heinous murder. Several scenes with Carter and others offer different variations of hilarity and cleverness, including a moment where Perkins keeps straying from a line, throwing his comrades into a tumultuous death loop they can’t help but escape.

While the Inspector directs most of the action, the show’s strength lies in the formidable ensemble of actors, from top to bottom, whose smug chic as endlessly mugging and prancing Brits is delightful. Their commitment to spitting poppycock at every turn pays huge dividends in the play’s final throes, when Robert Pickering’s elegant set design, replicating the Broadway and London productions, and the razor-sharp sound work of Steve Schoenbeck, s fully insert themselves into the quagmire.

It’s safe to say that an unfinished set on opening night is one of the most dangerous places in theater. In the case of the unfortunate members of the Conley University Dramatic Society, opening night indeed offers no respite from wood, metal and nails. The set also seems determined to have the last word until closing night.

David John Chávez is president of the American Theater Critics Association and a two-time Pulitzer Prize for Drama juror (’22-’23); @davidjchavez.


By Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, presented by San Jose Stage Company

Through: December 17

Or: San Jose Scene, 490 S.1st St., San Jose

Tickets: $34 to $74; www.thestage.org


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