A sign prominently displayed at one side of the Lyric Stage Company set proudly brags: “This show has worked without an accident for 0 days.” Rut-ro.
In case you didn’t get it in the title of “The Play That Goes Wrong,” the sign provides a blunt bit of foreshadowing: There will be blood. But since this is slapstick in the extreme, the blood is represented by a red handkerchief, slaps and door slams are mimed with increasing enthusiasm, and mugging for the audience is done with mischievous glee.
The play-within-a-play is set at the Cornley Drama Society’s production of “The Murder at Haversham Manor,” a 1920s-era melodrama chosen by the company because the number of actors needed matches the number of drama society members. As if that setup wasn’t enough, the director (who is also one of the actors) appears for a curtain speech with general housekeeping notes and some old-fashioned, groan-inducing jokes, including an admission of previous casting miscalculations that led to “The Lion, the Witch . . . ” and “Cat.” Can you hear the rim shot?
Not one bit of subtlety can be found in this comedy, which is essentially a one-joke shtick that still elicits one belly laugh after another. Every actor’s nightmare comes true in the erstwhile but under-rehearsed production, with misplaced props, missed lines, and set pieces falling like dominoes as the play moves toward its inevitable climax.
Although farce is defined by big, broad comedy, it requires a director’s firm but gentle hand. The Lyric production has that in spades with Fred Sullivan Jr.
Sullivan encourages his actors to lean into their characters, no matter how two-dimensional they appear, and let the laughs fall where they may. He does insert some hilarious stage business — Watch the lovers kissing! And the sword fight! — and keeps the action moving briskly, barely allowing time for the audience to catch its breath amid the plethora of pratfalls.
Nora Eschenheimer deserves recognition as the most resilient cast member. Known to Boston audiences for her work in Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s Boston Common productions of “Cymbeline” and “The Tempest,” she’s an absolute delight, swanning and swooning around the stage while completing at least a half-marathon with her laps around the sofa. Her pronunciation of the word “dead” is worth the price of admission alone. But when her character, Sandra, is knocked unconscious by a swinging door, Eschenheimer must endure being dragged around the stage, lugged through a large picture window, and stuffed into a grandfather clock — and then, when she recovers, she has to put up with a replacement who refuses to back out of the scene.
Michael Liebhauser, as the Cornley director, manages to infuse a bit of gravitas into his dual role as the company’s bumbling policeman, while expressing frustration when his cast can’t remember their cues or blocking or lines.
And Marc Pierre chews the scenery as the drama society’s resident ham, but always manages to look innocent when he turns to the audience for approval.
The true star of the show is scenic designer Peter Colao, who, while working within the confines of the script’s very specific requirements, must protect the Lyric Stage cast (and audience) from danger even as he allows the set to collapse all around them.
“The Play That Goes Wrong” is a true team effort, requiring split-second timing from each member of the ensemble, including Dan Whelton’s mad scramble across a dangerously tilting floor, one techie (Mitch Kiliulis) with a penchant for Duran Duran, and another (Alexa Cadete) whose reluctance to go onstage turns into an unwillingness to step aside.
For all their embarrassment and annoyance at the mishaps and malaprops, the Cornley troupe, like every ensemble that loves what it does, doesn’t give up, because, after all, the show must go on.
THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG
Play by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields. Directed by Fred Sullivan Jr. Presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon St. Through Dec. 18. $40-$75. 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com
Terry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.