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The Most Hysterical Disaster: “The Play that Goes Wrong” at the Ahmanson

The company of the national tour of “”The Play That Goes Wrong”.” Written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields and directed by Mark Bell. [Photo: Jeremy Daniel]

There are terms I learned a long time ago not to put in a review, because they are overused to the point of meaning nothing. At least normally. This time, though, there are few words more apt than “hysterical” or “laugh riot” or even “side-splitting” for the deliciously insane “The Play That Goes Wrong” just opened at the Ahmanson. Seriously, this is one of the funniest things I’ve seen anywhere, ever.

Pretend that an extremely amateur, pompously overconfident, poorly cast company of players decides to stage a mystery best described as low-rent Agatha Christie. And then pretend that this is done with all the extremes of artifice, technical ineptitude, and sheer bumbling possible. Then you have some sense of what this show contains, but not really.

Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields’ play isn’t echoing Monty Python. It isn’t a Sherlock Holmes spoof. Rather, it’s a terrific send-up of amateur theatricals: occasionally cartoonish, tremendously physical, and impressively silly.

As with anything this physical, the old adage applies: it can take greater expertise to do something wrong on purpose than to do something right. The cast of this show lives up to this, handling the necessarily precise direction designed by Mark Bell, and carried out on tour by Matt DiCarlo, while making everything still seem spontaneous. This precision not only keeps the humor rich, but keep the actors safe as the physical comedy reaches heights even such spoofs as “Noises Off” dare not attempt. The thing must work like clockwork, and it does.

The members of the “Cornley University Drama Society” include Evan Alexander Smith, exuding righteously British pomposity as the group’s first-time director who has cast himself as the wise detective. Peyton Crim, whose sonorous voice is a delight, plays the stereotypical British aristocrat, shooting jacket and all, as the brother of the murdered man’s fiancé. Ned Noyes goes jaw-droopingly over the top on all occasions as the brother of the murdered man, unconvincingly romantically intwined with said fiancé.

Scott Cote’s stereotypical butler proves one of the greater comedic assets as the play implodes. Jamie Ann Romero turns the internal play’s only female into a delightful comedy turn, and a remarkably physical one – she faints with impressive skill. Still, perhaps the funniest aspects of this production are the two “techies” who disrupt or cope with this deeply flawed troupe’s foibles.

Brandon J. Ellis gives the overly casual lights and sound guy so much presence he, in his offstage cubicle, is sometimes all you can watch. Angela Grovey’s practical, then panicked stage manager turned sudden understudy becomes probably the most howlingly funny performer in the piece.

Someone should give set designer Nigel Hook a medal for creating a set which can seem so classically formulaic and can destroy itself to such remarkable comedic effect, without killing the actors. Andrew Johnson’s sound design becomes its own comic character. This truly is as ensemble a production as can be imagined.

So, drop everything and go see “The Play That Goes Wrong.” The times are stressful, and the world is a bit dark. We all need a vacation, and a chance to laugh, and laugh you will, almost constantly. My companion admitted afterward that she “laughed so hard no sound was coming out.” What a great way to spend a summer afternoon or evening.

What: “The Play That Goes Wrong” When: Through August 11, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, with a 2 p.m. performance Thursday, August 8 Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $30 – $135 Info: http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org or 213-972-4400

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