‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ at Kennedy Center is a perfectly flawed hit

Impecably timed and coordinated mishaps make for nonstop laughs.

The national tour of The Play That Goes Wrong brings a night of nonstop laughter to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The Tony- and Olivier Award–winning play from writing team Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields boasts a cast with impeccable timing and physical comedy prowess.

The Play That Goes Wrong centers on the Cornley University Drama Society’s disastrous attempt to stage the murder mystery The Murder at Haversham Manor. From the moment the audience enters the theater, patrons are transported to a world of theatrical mishaps with production crew members interacting with audience members. Even the playbill is part of the fun and includes familiar archetypes and playful jabs at the theater world.

The cast of ‘The Play That Goes Wrong,’ Chicago company. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

The key to the production’s success is its ability to play on common character tropes while adding the unexpected calamity of external forces. Even in the midst of danger and embarrassment, the actors prevail with a stiff upper lip and the unspoken adage “The show must go on!” Each member brings a unique comic sensibility and impeccable timing to their respective roles. Their ability to seamlessly execute the intricately choreographed mishaps and keep a straight face amidst the chaos is a testament to their skill and commitment.

The production begins with a word from Chris Bean (Matt Harrington), the Director and lead actor of the murder mystery. We soon meet the over-acting Robert Grove (Peyton Crim), and not-quite-off-book Dennis Tyde (Bartley Booz). Sandra Wilkinson (Mara Davi) is the melodramatic ingenue until she is knocked unconscious and needs an immediate replacement. Annie Twilloil (Kai Heath) enters the scene with script in hand and wig on head. As the show progresses, so does Annie’s confidence, showing a full arc of terror, defeat, joy, and triumph. Max Bennett (Alex Mandell) plays the over-enthusiastic and clumsy newcomer who milks every moment as if he is being bitten by the theater bug over and over again.

Trevor Watson (Akron Watson) is the light and sound board operator and spends much of the time sitting in the booth situated in the audience. We had the chance to interact with him a bit during the pre-show and it was very fun to see him and other performers improvise and help set the tone for the night. Jonathan Harris (Joseph Anthony Byrd) performs the most dangerous stunts, even as the victim of a murder. His theatrical and dance background is apparent as he takes each movement, no matter how small or large, and captivates the audience’s attention.

The scenic design by Nigel Hook and the technical elements are the stars of the show. The ingenious set constantly poses unexpected challenges and becomes a source of endless amusement. The seemingly simple and straightforward design transforms into a nightmarish obstacle course, leaving the actors to navigate their way through collapsing structures, malfunctioning doors, and missing props. The impeccable timing and coordination required to pull off these meticulous mishaps is a testament to the production’s attention to detail.

The show is family-friendly in that the humor and hijinks revolve around physical comedy and wordplay rather than crude language or overly sexual plot devices. If you have younger theatergoers, I recommend watching an episode or two of the British comedy series The Goes Wrong Show to see if it may be something they could sit through without risking any spoilers from the play. I brought my family including my 11- and 9-year-olds, and we all thoroughly enjoyed it.

Seat selection can also play a role in one’s experience. Among my family, two of us sat in the orchestra and the other two sat in the mezzanine. If you enjoy interacting with performers and getting an up-close vantage point, the orchestra seats will place you in the middle of the mayhem. However, you may lose sight of some of the action that happens on the floor of the stage, due to audience members in rows ahead. (Seat cushions are available for those who need vertical assistance.) If you prefer to see the entire width of the stage and watch the show as a spectator, the balcony and mezzanine seats will be an ideal place. The tech booth is located in the left Orchestra section, so some mezzanine seats may not have a good visual of those moments, but the interactions will be clearly heard and enjoyed nonetheless.

The Play That Goes Wrong is a masterclass in farce and physical comedy. It captures the thrill of live theater while reveling in the unpredictable nature of the stage. The witty writing, flawless execution, and commitment of the cast and crew make for an unforgettable evening of laughter for all ages.

Running Time: Two hours, including one 20-minute intermission.

The Play That Goes Wrong plays through August 13, 2023, in the Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($39–$159) are available at the box office, online, or by calling (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324.

The program for The Play That Goes Wrong is online here.

COVID Safety: Masks are optional in all Kennedy Center spaces for visitors and staff. If you prefer to wear a mask, you are welcome to do so. See Kennedy Center’s complete COVID Safety Plan here.


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