The Play That Goes Wrong

The Play That Goes Wrong” seems to be a bit polarizing. I have friends whose reactions were “Meh.” I have friends whose were like mine: Loved it. Then again, I’ve always loved “Noises Off,” which is another British play with a similar conceit, in which we watch an amateur theater production go off the rails. In “Noises Off,” there are three acts and a rotating set, so we see the first act as the audience would, the second from the wings, so stage and backstage at once, and the third is only backstage. It’s three looks at the same show, so by the time we get to the end, we know what got screwed up onstage and finally get to see why it happened.

The Play That Goes Wrong” takes a more linear approach, so we see one performance that gets increasingly wonkier. The show-within-a-show is ostensibly an Agatha Christie manqué murder mystery set in a stately mansion. The actor who plays the detective, Chris Bean as Inspector Carter (in reality, Evan Alexander Smith), not only directed the play, he designed costumes, made props, etc., etc. And if you do go to the show, your enjoyment will be greatly enhanced by reading the fake actor bios and whatnot in the playbill info for “The Murder at Haversham Manor,” because they will add so much to the play for you.

Is this necessarily a good thing? Well, considering that the show starts well before curtain with the stage manager and tech dude futzing with the set (and hilariously involving an audience member in what turns out to be foreshadowing) while two of the running crew wander the audience, frantically trying to find a lost dog, I’d say yes. There is no fourth wall here at any point after you enter the theater, and that’s half the fun. There was even one moment when an audience member shouted something to the actor on stage, and I could not figure out whether it was an usher, or just someone who really got into the spirit of it. It certainly set up the rant from the character that followed, and it says a lot about the writing and performing that he got exactly the reactions he needed from us to make successive lines make sense.

Or maybe there was a lot of ad-libbing and improv of the order of things. Hard to tell which.

As for the show itself, I think the big reasons it amused me so much were these: First, I’ve done a lot of theater in… let’s say, low-budget circumstances… and things are always going wrong, people are forgetting lines, missing cues, breaking props, and so on. Oh, sure. Never to the disastrous scale seen here, but this is just the nightmare cranked up to 11. Second, as an improviser, I was incredibly amused by the conceit that the actors are going to stick to the script as written no matter what happens, dammit! And this is what gets them into the most trouble.

For example, at one point, a character enters to get a pencil for the detective, but it’s not where it’s supposed to be. He finally exasperatedly grabs what is very obviously an antique key to the door, still calling it a pencil. All of the characters are working very hard to try to ignore everything that’s wrong around them. Improvisers would embrace this, acknowledge the weird, and run with it.

A perfect example is when one character refers to a portrait on the wall, saying that it’s the father of the brothers in the story and that one of the brothers is his spitting image. But it’s actually a painting of a dog, which in the real life of the play is the same dog the stagehands couldn’t find before the show. The characters continue to play it as if the portrait is human. Improvisers would have gone right to it actually being a dog portrait, but that being the most normal thing of all, and would have come up with one of a dozen ways to justify the brother being its spitting image.

The performances are amazing, and the physical feats as well as the timing here are just mind-boggling. Several characters apparently get whammed really hard by errant parts of the set, and we have stage combat, acrobatics, what amounts to juggling, and several physically tricky exits of characters carried, dragged, or dropped  by others through doors and windows. As for all that “whamming,” which quite often involves hits right to the face and multiple knockouts, I know how this is done, but it was done impressively and convincingly and at more than full-speed.

This is definitely a show that probably has a good hour of slo-mo combat/action practice before every performance.

And as for the acting… it takes an amazingly talented cast to take a bunch of actors as characters who aren’t so great, and make them bad in just the right ways. There are no standouts because everyone was exceptional. Dennis Tyde as Perkins, the butler (Scott Cote) has somewhat of a problem when it comes to remembering or pronouncing obscure words, like “fakade” or “kianeedy,” (façade and cyanide), and this becomes a running gag that leads to a meltdown. Cote draws this character perfectly. As Robert Grove playing Thomas, Peyton Crim the actor brings a very Brian Blessed bigger-than-life vibe to the whole thing, and his physical work, especially when trapped on a lofted playing era threatening to collapse is amazing. Jamie Ann Romero, in real life, plays Sandra Wilkinson who plays Florence, the female lead, who can’t seem to keep it in her panties, at least figuratively, and her affairs with several characters seem to be the catalyst for the murders. Romero is brilliant at giving Sandra just enough talent to be not that talented, but way too declamatory and funny as hell, and watching her morph from Gatsby flapper to a demented and battling Betty Boop is hilarious.

I’ve already mentioned Evan Alexander Smith as Chris Bean, man of many hats, and our detective, Trevor. Not only does he hold the center of the piece together, but he does it as a man who, in his reality, is about to fall apart since this show is his baby, and it isn’t going well. In fact, the moment when he finally breaks character and lets loose is one of the highlights of the whole show.

Then there’s Ned Noyes as Max and Arthur, the trust fund baby, and it’s clear from his fake bio that he’s probably only here because he donated a shitload of money to the company. He’s also the only character who, as an actor, plays two roles but the clue to that is, again, in that bio. He breaks character and the fourth wall constantly, fawns and prances for the audience in many “Wasn’t I clever, there?” moments, and gives a huge bit of fan service in the second act. In short, Noyes makes us love his character for all of his shortcomings as an actor and it’s clear that he, himself, as an actor is just having a ton of fun up there. (Well, everyone is.)

A murder mystery needs a victim, and we open with Jonathan Harris as Charles, the victim, played by Yaegel T. Welch, caught at lights up in the first of many mistakes. His Harris is an actor who can’t quite play a convincing corpse, which is problematic in a murder mystery, but perfect in a play like this. The harder he fails at it, the harder we laugh.

Rounding out the cast are Angela Grovey as Annie Twilloil, the stage manager, and Brandon J. Ellis as Trevor Watson, the light and sound operator. They are also the only two American characters in the play. (Again, read those fake bios, people, they’re worth it.) Trevor is only here to get a credit needed to graduate, and he’s not a theater person. Meanwhile, Annie seems to have a terror of being seen by the audience at all. That’s another reason to get there early and watch the pre-show, not to mention that specific things she does then actually turn out to be more foreshadowing of what happens later.

I don’t want to spoil too much, but both Annie and Trevor wind up involved in the onstage happenings more than they want to be, and Grovey and Ellis nail it in character to a T, but in two totally different ways. Annie is initially terrified to be there, but after a moment of audience approval, she suddenly opens up and steals the stage — quite literally later.

Meanwhile, Trevor clearly doesn’t want to be there at all, and especially not when he’s suddenly put in an awkward situation that becomes one of the biggest moments in the second act. (Kudos to Ellis for just going for it as an actor, by the way.) Also impressive: While he spends most of his time during the show scrolling on his phone between cues in the “booth,” which is played by a mezzanine level box, he is still able to take focus exactly when the script needs it, and also plays the audience brilliantly. Of course, I happened to be sitting dead center in the main Mezz, which was right where his eye-line went, so he and I kind of developed a weird little thing during the show.

Not that I have any complaints about that. Nor did Max. But I do digress.

The other two really impressive things about the show are, well, of course the script, and the tech. Script first… the thing to remember is that the murder mystery story here really doesn’t matter, because that’s not what we’re following, but it still made sense. But on the level above that, what really impressed me — and I don’t know how they did it unless there was improv involved — was that certain moments got exactly the emotional response needed from the audience to justify the next lines of dialogue, and this happened multiple times. In fact, when Chris Bean melted down onstage, it happened about five times in a row in the same scene.

The other is that, beyond the timing and juggling of the actors, the physical working of the set was perfect, and whoever designed it deserves All the Awards. We had things falling off of walls, or randomly suddenly staying, a door that became a character on its own, a lofted playing area of many surprises, a stage elevator that, behind the scenes, was way more complicated than this fake company should have attempted — hey, lights and a ladder, maybe instead of a practical lift? — props that either vanished or fell or flew apart, flats that decided to, um, take a bow, recalcitrant doorknobs, and on and on and on. It was a set built to fail, and it fails spectacularly, bit by bit, over the course of the show. The set was, as Trevor describes it, “a death trap.”

The most impressive thing is that the timing of set failures is just as exacting as that of the actors, and I would love to interview the tech people and find out how they did it all. I’m suspecting a ton of remotely controlled magnets and levers (probably via MIDI?), and a third running crew member beyond sound and lights in charge of all the effects.

But I’m just gushing now. As a theater kid, I loved the show just because. As an improviser I loved it even more just because because. Most of the muggles watching with me seemed to love it, too. If you fall into any of those categories, see it if you get a chance. This run ends on August 11. And then before or after, stream “Noises Off,” a 1992 movie version of that play starring Carol Burnett, John Ritter, Christopher Reeve, and Michael Caine, among others.

Meanwhile, this play goes wrong in all the right ways.

Sunday Nibble #25: A Tale of Two Biopics

Lockdown and Amazon Prime have actually gotten me back to watching films, and to recent flicks resonate so strongly with each other that it’s amazing. One is Elton John’s biopic Rocketman. The other is Shia LaBeouf’s biopic Honey Boy, and both of them are just amazing deep dives into self-revelation from two men who lost a lot to addiction but then dug out of it.

The big difference between them, though, is that Elton is a generally beloved person and always has been, while Shia has somehow been heaped with hate, and I don’t get the latter bit.

When he did his #iamsorry performance art piece in L.A., I really tried to make it through the crowds to get in there, but didn’t. The idea was that each guest would be led individually into a room where Shia sat at a wooden table with a paper bag that read, “I am not famous anymore” over his head. There were a bunch of things on the table relating to various of his movies.

The idea that anyone who came in could do whatever they wanted to him with what was before him and, apparently, at least one shitty patron raped him.

Anyway, had I made it in, I would have pulled that bag off his head and told him, “Dude, you’re not a shit person. You’re an artist. Sometimes it’s tough. And I know that you intend to not speak during this, but that’s okay. You’re an actor. You have value.”

But here’s the really big difference between both men: Elton chose to become a performer. He wanted to take music lessons, and become a rock star, and he dragged his family into it. Meanwhile, Shia just wanted to be a kid, but his alcoholic trainwreck of a father instead used his kid to try to live out his Hollywood dreams, and it took a major toll.

And, extreme bonus points here: Elton doesn’t show up in his own biopic until the very end, and only as himself. Meanwhile, Shia takes the much riskier route of diving headfirst into playing the absolute source of his own addictions and troubles. That is, in Honey Boy, Shia plays his own father, and he does not pull a single punch or knock off a blemish.

Sure, he humanizes him and gives a sincere and compelling performance. At the same time, every single second he’s on screen as his own father, we just want to punch his fucking face and save his son, Otis, aka Honey Boy, from his own insincerity and arrogance, and OMG does Shia get this in spades.

This is the kind of hard-edged, honest bio that only someone who has been through rehab can create, and it’s basically stated half-way through the movie. Paraphrasing, it’s only when you hit your lowest that you can share what will save others from the same.

In the film, Otis got it. Dad? I’m  not so sure. And neither is Shia. But, by the end of Honey Boy… adult Shia offers both absolution and condemnation — not just for his dad, but for himself, and you can’t get anymore more goddamn honest than that in a biopic. Ever.

Sunday Nibble #24: Queer as Folk

Recently, the British series Queer as Folk from 1999 popped up on Amazon Prime, and I had to give it a watch again. This is not to be confused with the American series, which ran from 2000 to 2005 and was inferior in every way, just like the American The Office was a pale and bloodless imitation of the amazing British version.

What? While the US has adapted more than a few British shows into American versions, they’ve only hit gold twice: All in the Family and Sanford and Son.

So, yeah… The American QAF sucked ass. The American The Office sucked ass. Fight me. Oh, crap, that’s right. The U.S. even tried to adapt Red Dwarf. And… no, thank you. And the U.S. version of The Prisoner equally sucked ass.

They can’t even do Australia right — the original Kath & Kim is brilliant. The American version, despite the presence of the amazingly talented and funny Molly Shannon, just fell flat. If you get a chance to see the original, do so. It is just as bust-your-side laughing hilarious as the best of Ab Fab. Oh, right — American tried to ruin that one, too, but it never got off the ground.

Meanwhile, let’s get back to the British version of Queer as Folk. Helmed by Russell T Davies, it is both deeply personal and universal and, hindsight is 2020, he made one of his characters a total Doctor Who nerd, six years before he himself went on to be the showrunner who brought New Who back in 2005.

Who is a running theme in the series, including a moment when the two leads list off all of the actors who had played the Doctor to date, ending with: “Paul McGann (pause) — he doesn’t count!” The sentiment at the time, but since changed as the 8th Doctor was brought into canon.

But I do digress…

I watched both series of the show when it first aired, and then hadn’t been back since. Watching it again now brings back those memories, but also reminds me how time and perspective change feelings about art.

At its core, QAF is about a trio of gay men in Manchester in the late 90s, when there’s a thriving gay life on Canal Street (although the sign has been graffitoed to omit the “C”) while the world outside of this Boys’ Town is still quite homophobic. We also meet their many friends, family, and lovers who are rather put-upon by two of the trio, to put it charitably.

Our trio are Stuart (Aidan Gillen), Vincent (Craig Kelly), and Nathan (Charlie Hunnam). In order, they are the insensitive, mindless whorebot, who only cares about his next conquest; the caring friend who tries to meet someone, tries to take care of everyone, and fails at both; and the underage twink who throws himself into a world he doesn’t understand, only to wind up too emotionally deep and over his head on his first real night out.

In other words, it’s a show that is complicated, deep, and truly edgy — as opposed to fake edgy.

So… when I first watched the show, I also happened to be in my slut-boy days, regularly cruising my local equivalent of (C)anal street and, somehow, managing to pull tail without even trying. No, seriously. The big irony was that I was too shy and insecure to approach anyone, but once I learned to give a long enough stare and smile, it was like I had a magnet in my pants. They came to me, I said yes, deal done.

Although, unlike Stuart, who railed a fifteen-year-old (of age in Britain) the youngest I ever went after I was twenty-five was nineteen, and, again, he asked first.

When I first watched the show, I thought, “Ah, okay. I relate to Stuart.” He’s the one who hooks up with everybody, has no attachments and, anyway, isn’t this show about him? Not that I found him attractive because, to me at that time, he just looked old.

Funny how Stuart later grew up to be Littlefinger and, meanwhile, Nathan grew up to be… a lot of people.

Watching again with the advantage of perspective and maturity, one thing is abundantly clear: Stuart is an absolute shit. He doesn’t care about anyone but himself. His picking up Nathan in the first episode is the inciting incident for the whole series, but to Stuart it’s just a hump and dump. As he explains it when Nathan shows an interest in more, Stuart’s reply is, “Why? I’ve had you.”

The thing that really jumps out on a repeat viewing is that although Stuart is 29 and Nathan is 15, the teen is far more mature than the adult — not by much, but at least he manages to sometimes step out of his own self-centered bubble to think about someone else, and he is the direct catalyst for the denouement between the other two.

Vince is the heart of the piece, the one guy who does deserve love and happiness but can’t get out of his own way to achieve it. Partly, he’s stuck on Stuart, although their relationship will clearly never be anything but platonic. Also, he doesn’t believe that he’s worthy of anyone’s love. The punchline is that he’s more worthy of it than either Stuart or Nathan.

I’ll catch up on Series 2 shortly, although that one was a lot different than Series 1, at least in format. The first series consisted of eight half-hour episodes. The second and final series comprised two fifty minute episodes, so felt like a two-part movie, which is a shame. This world and these characters could have easily supported so much more.

Sunday nibble #23: Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?

Since I don’t subscribe to HBO, I wasn’t able to watch the TV series Watchmen when it first ran, despite everyone telling me it was the best thing ever. However, to honor the Juneteenth holiday, last weekend HBO allowed everyone to watch it for free, so binged the nine episodes, viewing three per day from Friday through Sunday.

I’ll get to my impressions of the show in a moment, but first, my history with Watchmen in general. I had heard of the graphic novel but had never read it until just before the film came out in 2009. In fact, I think I’d only ever read one graphic novel, which was a short one consisting of maybe two or three issues of a comic. A friend had sent it to me as a present, either birthday or Christmas, to encourage me to get into the genre, but it didn’t work.

Sure, I read comic books as a kid, but always leaned toward the so-called Bronze Age holdovers and wasn’t really into the New Age stuff, because they were just too gritty and dark for me.

Oh… there is a concept in comics of the format being divided up into at least four ages: Golden (1938-1950), Silver (1956-1970), Bronze (1970-1985), and New (1985-Present).

In a nutshell, the Golden Age is when all the classic super heroes were introduced, including Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Captain America. They were a cheap source of entertainment, especially during WW II, and it wasn’t uncommon for a single issue to sell a million copies.

Near the end of the war, though, tales of super heroes fade in popularity, replaced by genre comics — sci-fi, westerns, romance, etc. — but then Cold Age paranoia and prudishness intruded, linking comics to juvenile delinquency. To avoid government censorship, the industry created the Comics Code Authority (CCA), a self-regulating body similar to the movie industry’s MPAA.

The Golden age heroes started to return and the next generation began to appear — Spider-Man, Thor, The Hulk, Iron Man, and the X-Men. There’s also an emphasis on superhero teams, and this is when the Justice League is fully formed from its origins during the Golden Age. This is also when The Avengers appear.

Side-note: It’s why Captain America is the First Avenger even though Supes and Batman came first — they played for a different team.

While all of this is going on, underground comics, not subject to the CCA, are thriving, and their subject matter is strictly adult.

The Bronze Age comes about when the comics start tackling social issues of the day, underground comics have an influence, and supernatural and horror stories also become popular. The power of the CCA also fades and the rise of Star Wars leads to the comic industry following suit in merchandising tie-ins, toys, T-shirts, and more.

Frank Miller “reboots” the Golden and Silver Age heroes in dark and gritty versions, and then Alan Moore publishes Watchmen. Its first appearance was in 1985, in the 50th anniversary special of DC Spotlight, although the series itself ran twelve issues from September 1986 to October 1987, with the omnibus edition being published later that year.

This ushered in the New Age of comics, a big part of the reason being that Watchmen took all of comic history to date, turned the characters on their heads, imagined an alternate historical timeline, and then threw it together into something amazing.

In the original graphic novel, we meet several generations of “masked heroes,” beginning with The Minutemen in the 1930s. While they aren’t exactly the comic heroes we know, there are some analogies, but the first and most mysterious of them is Hooded Justice, who pops up in New York and takes down criminals until the 1950s.

After he refuses to reveal his true identity to the House Un-American Activities Committee, he disappears, later to be found floating face down in the Hudson River, claimed a suicide but assumed a homicide, depending upon whom you ask.

(This is all established in the graphic novel, by the way, so it’s not a spoiler to the series.)

There are other first generation heroes, like Captain Metropolis, Dollar Bill, Silhouette, Mothman, Silk Spectre I, and Nite Owl I, although only Captain Metropolis, Silk Spectre and Nite Owl make it out alive to the next generation.

Round two, the Silver Age heroes, are Silk Spectre II and Nite Owl II, Dr. Manhattan, Ozymandias, Rorschach, and the Comedian although eventually masked heroes are outlawed, with only Dr. Manhattan and the Comedian staying semi-legal, but only because they go to work for the government.

By the way, Dr. Manhattan is the only one who actually has superpowers, acquired during an accident with a quantum physics experiment back in the 1950s.

Now I knew none of this because I’d never read the book, but then in 2008 I saw a trailer for the film Watchmen, and it blew me away. I think this is the final 2009 trailer, but they didn’t change much from one to the other. It’s worth the watch. Pun intended.

So I watched the trailer over and over online, intrigued by everything in it, and then ran out and bought a copy of the graphic novel, which I proceeded to binge-read over the next few days, using most of my lunch hour at work to down the next chapter.

Wow.

For one thing, it proved me wrong in thinking that “comic books” were not a literary form. Watchmen certainly was worthy of being a novel — in fact, the only graphic novel to be included in the Time Magazine top 100 novels list.

For another, it went beyond comics, and each chapter would include some sort of literary insert, like an excerpt from a made-up book, a fake newspaper clipping, a brochure, subversive literature, and so on.

Each insert would either shed new light on what had come before or set up breadcrumbs for what would follow, and it added a nice level of multiple narrative voices telling a story that may or may not be true.

I was not disappointed by the film version — unlike lots of fans of the book — although I did enough research to realize that skipping the two print spin-offs: Before Watchmen and The Doomsday Clock were probably a good idea, since they seemed to be nothing more than cash-grabs by DC Comics, with no involvement from Alan Moore. (Not that he’s involved in anything but the original book.)

So when I heard that HBO was making a mini-series, I was at first skeptical. I wondered whether they weren’t going to try to adapt the original again, in which case, why bother? And then, this trailer dropped.

Clearly, not an adaptation of the series, but a sequel, although it looked both amazing and confusing — none of the familiar heroes in sight, only one shot that might have been Nite Owl II’s vehicle Archie, but still plenty of masked heroes. And I couldn’t watch it without subscribing to HBO, but even this was not incentive enough.

Luckily, I managed to remain mostly spoiler-free (other than who Jeremy Irons was playing) for eight months, watched three episodes per day for three days and, just like with the graphic novel, all I can say is… wow.

The series managed to feel like the narrative structure of the book, tie in the first and second generation masked heroes and then bring in a third in the modern day, and then be about something even bigger than the original.

After all, the big fear when the graphic novel came out was the Cold War and the end of the world via nuclear holocaust. In fact, the whole point of that story is that one of the masked heroes takes it upon himself to avoid humanity’s annihilation by creating the perception of a new threat that exists outside the control of the USA or USSR.

Let’s just say that the new series has equally megalomaniacal characters, but also managed to hit upon humanity’s true, current existential threat a year before it popped into the forefront.

If you’re a fan of the graphic novel or movie, you won’t be disappointed by this one. If you have no prior experience of Watchmen, you won’t need it to enjoy the show but do yourself a favor if you feel like binging: read the graphic novel first, then watch the movie, then settle down and binge.

Oh yeah… after the freebie from HBO, the series is also now on Amazon Prime, and was recently released on DVD, so there’s that.