Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, Ross Cowan and Erica Murphy in “The Play That Goes Wrong” at Portland Stage. Photo by James A. Hadley/Portland Stage

Two popular British comedies have arrived in Portland early in 2024.

As Good Theater nears the end of the run of its very entertaining production of Richard Bean’s “One Man, Two Guvnors,” Portland Stage takes on the wild and wacky theatrical world of “The Play That Goes Wrong” by authors Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields. In this laugh-filled show, director Kevin R. Free, cast and crew have provided a spirited mid-winter escape into that world of good, silly fun for which the British have long been known.

“The Play That Goes Wrong” takes the form of a play within a play. A group of bumbling but committed drama society types try to stage a 1920s Agatha Christi- style murder mystery after apparently failing at earlier efforts to put on a musical. All the vanities of ham acting combine with wackily earnest efforts that the show must go on to create a continuous series of major and minor failings on a stage set (by Anita Stewart) that seems not quite ready for a show that’s equally not quite ready.

It’s a play that leans heavily on the physical elements of farce while having some fun with old-school theatrics. The cast and crew of the murder mystery try hard to hold the show together physically and narratively through half-baked improvisations and an overall desire to somehow make it work. Each player has multiple roles; appearing as an actor, director or stagehand putting on the show and as a character within the mystery they are trying to present. They hilariously struggle to stay on script despite numerous mishaps, missing props and missed cues.

Ross Cowan gains laughs in his roles as an apologetic but determined director as well as the inspector summoned to solve the murder. His stuffy demands and proclamations in the latter role provide a center for the actions and antics of those around him.

Erica Murphy & Max Samuels in “The Play That Goes Wrong” at Portland Stage. Photo by James A. Hadley/Portland Stage

Khalil LeSaldo plays an animated and acrobatic corpse and an actor repeatedly missing his cues. Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper is a sort of take-charge fellow who is thrown off balance in more ways than one. Max Samuels is a befuddled actor/servant drawn into the fray by a demanding upper crust. Laura Darrell is a diva whose mystery character flits between romances. Dean Linnard is a foppish ham while J. Stephen Brantley runs the lights and sound when not asked to take on a role.

Local favorite Erica Murphy nearly steals the show as a stagehand who’s drafted to replace the leading lady when the latter is knocked unconscious. She takes on the role with increased vigor, to the point where she literally fights to stay onstage. Murphy creates a feasty presence to keep the action lively in the second act of the roughly two-hour play (including intermission).

Period costumes by Patrice N. Trower, movement coordination from Michael Trautman, and fight choreography by Michael Dix Thomas add immensely to this uproarious two-plays-for-the-price-of-one from Portland Stage.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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