Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

The Play That Goes Wrong
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's recent review of In Every Generation

The Cast
Photo by Scott Lasky
Finally, after past short-handed productions such as Two Sisters (making for a much shorter evening of Chekhov), The Lion and the Wardrobe (forget the Witch), and Cat (a solo musical?), the Cornley Drama Society has recruited enough members to stage The Murder at Haversham Manor, a 1920s whodunit murder mystery sure to rival the fame of The Mousetrap. With a cast that includes the likes of actors who have played such roles as Man 3 in The Blue Man Group for Kids, the Lame Horse in Black Beauty, and the Shepard in The Ten Commandments (not to overlook one slightly tired actor who just completed a run of Twelve Angry Cyclists that featured a cast of twelve on exercise bikes for two hours)–with such a cast what can go wrong? Actually, the more correct question is, "Can anything possibly go right?" In Palo Alto Players' rip-roaring, rib-tickling, riotously rambunctious The Play That Goes Wrong, the answer to the last question is "Absolutely, NO." That nothing goes right in this fictitious play within the much-awarded The Play That Goes Wrong by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields results in an evening of slap-stick hilarity full of eye-popping surprises.

Audience members entering Lucie Stern Center should be pre-warned to admire quickly the wall-papered parlor with its many touches and details of a country manor of the early twentieth century (including a loft library to be reached only by an ancient-looking elevator). Even before the play begins, the fireplace's mantle crashes to the ground, with a frantic stagehand trying to hammer it back into place just as the lighting and sound operator is making a few pre-show announcements.

Hardly will the Cornley Players begin their masterpiece before more things suddenly fall off walls while doors will not open, needed props go missing, and water suddenly pours out of the wall intercom. And that is just in the first couple of minutes, as the dead body of the manor's owner, Charles Haversham, is discovered–a corpse whose hand keeps getting stepped on, whose body is too heavy to be hauled away on a too-flimsy stretcher (leaving two wide-eyed men carrying only two poles out of the room with no body), and who must slither his murdered body across the floor for the required exit as the cast watches stunned while trying to carry on with their lines.

As an inspector arrives and begins the required questioning of all present (including the dead man's fiancé, his brother, her brother, and of course, the butler), it becomes increasingly difficult as an audience to follow or even care to follow the unraveling of the mystery's clues. The entire production not only unravels before us but becomes a constant explosion of missed entrances; bungled or forgotten lines; collapsing stage segments; and a stage full of actors tripping, colliding, or being knocked out by doors not supposed to be opened at that moment. And do not even think about stepping into that elevator with woe being to anyone whose script says "go up to the library." Believe me, what happens to anyone caught on that suspended ledge with its desk and potted tree is not to be believed.

What is amazing is that these misfit players so magnificently and hysterically portrayed by the Palo Alto Players cast make it through the evening without any bruises and broken bones. Perhaps the night's biggest kudos should go to Dexter Fidler, the production's Fight/Fall Consultant. Otherwise, the hospital bills for the Palo Alto Players would certainly be astronomical.

Director Katie O'Bryon Champlin never lets a minute pass without multiple invitations for full-on, belly-deep laughter from the audience. My own jaws hurt from so much grinning and guffawing. I have rarely been in a theater where an audience reacted so constantly and universally with uproarious glee.

Forget the plot and the story. It matters not. I am not sure I can tell you today who is in fact the murderer of what turns out to be two victims. But who cares? What I will remember for years to come are scenes of bodies that get hauled around like they were stuffed dummies or bodies hanging precariously between what seems like life and death on collapsing floorboards.

Scenic designers Patrick Klein and Kevin Davies have masterfully constructed what in the end is a massive, three-dimensional puzzle whose pieces increasingly separate and fall to the side (and which, of course, must be put back together with an appearance of nothing out-of-ordinary for the next night's entering audience and in perfectly working order for the next night's series of calamities). Their design of properties whose misplacement and misuse add much to the ongoing humor is also full of comic inspiration. Combined with Jenny Garcia's array of period costumes that accent the peculiarities of each character, much of the evening's humor comes from the creative team itself (including the designs of lighting by Carsten Koester and sound by Jeff Grafton).

Each cast member plays a Cornley actor who absolutely cannot act but in doing so, each Palo Alto cast member is hilariously brilliant. As Dennis, the Cornley actor playing Perkins the butler, Brandon Silberstein brings a cocked head and a plethora of wide-eyed facial expressions that are their own ongoing commentary on all the chaos happening around him. His Dennis also must keep checking his palm, wrist, and eventually entire arm for scripted words he has trouble both remembering and pronouncing (e.g., fa-kad for façade).

Brad Satterwhite as Cornley actor Chris tries his best to be the serious, inquisitive Inspector Carter but finds himself having to improvise in ways that try his patience, like taking interview notes using keys as a pen and a cut-glass vase as a notebook–only two of many misplaced, missing props where last-second substitutions must be made.

Michelle Skinner is the dead Charles Haversham's fiancée, Florence Colleymoore (played by Sandra in the Cornley cast), who is having an affair with his brother, Cecil Haversham (Braden Taylor). Cecil is played by an actor, Max, who is obviously gay and cannot muster the courage to give his supposed girlfriend a kiss or even more than an arm's-length hug. Sandra deliciously overacts her part as a sexy, flittering Florence–that is, until she is accidentally knocked out and hauled through the set's window to be replaced by the fictitious company's stage manager, Annie, played half-wigged and barely gowned by Jen Maggio (alternating the part of Florence with Damaris Divito). In a performance that becomes funnier and funnier as she warms up to being on-stage, Jen Maggio's Annie likes reading the script lines handed her so much that she is willing to fight (literally) to keep the part when the original Florence recovers from being unconscious.

Braden Taylor's Max (who plays Cecil) is yet another highlight performance of the evening, and cannot help but act with twinkle-toe, high-jump, twisting moves to add more "oomph" to his lines; and he is prone to interact with waves, smiles, and quick curtseys to an increasingly adoring audience.

Drew Benjamin Jones (alternating the role with Christopher Mahle) is Jonathan, who plays the dead Charles Haversham–a stiff body that is never dead-still for too long for the duration of the play. Kyle Dayrit, whose Robert is the fictitious cast's Thomas Colleymoore, brother to vampy Florence, has the challenge several times of hanging on for dear life since it seems wherever he steps, the floor is often not very stable. Rounding out this talented ensemble is Lysander Abadia as the company's sound and light operator who also eventually finds himself on stage as the ever-changing, oft-unconscious Florence.

Anyone who dislikes sheer slapstick and silliness should probably forget The Play That Goes Wrong. However, for all who are open to an evening of absolute hilarity where thinking is not required, where storyline makes no difference, and where there will probably be calamitous things seen that most have never seen on live stage before, then this Palo Alto Players offering is a do-not-miss opportunity for two hours of fun, fun, fun.

The Play That Goes Wrong runs through February 5, 2023, at Palo Alto Players, Lucie Stern Center, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto CA. Tickets are available online for both in-person and virtual (February 3, 4 and 5) performances at Please note: Masks are required to be worn by all in-person audience members.