“Some poor stagehand in the wings didn’t notice that I wasn’t ready and started hoisting me up when I was only halfway attached,” Crim recalls. “I’m screaming at the top of my lungs, but no one could hear me over the music. You see all of this smoke filling the stage and then me slowing rising out of it, spinning on my side like I’m break-dancing in midair.”
It was a fortuitous experience for Crim, who nowadays is in the business of onstage mishaps as an actor in the touring production of “The Play That Goes Wrong.” An intentionally calamitous display of theater meta-humor, the West End and Broadway hit kicks off a three-week run at the Kennedy Center on Tuesday.
“The Play That Goes Wrong” depicts a deadly serious U.K. university production of a 1920s-set mystery titled “The Murder at Haversham Manor.” But the play-within-a-play’s cast and crew, as Crim says, have “bit off more than they can chew.” Actors forget lines. Props are misplaced. And the set starts to come apart at the seams. All the while, the actors forge forward, ever committed to the show.
“The old adage [is if you want to] play drunk, play a very, very sober person,” Crim says. “Part of the fun is really bearing down on the murder mystery, in spite of what’s happening around you.”
While the blunders in this play are carefully choreographed, anyone who’s ever helped put on a show knows that onstage gaffes are very real. That raises some questions: Does anything ever go wrong during “The Play That Goes Wrong” — and do the cast members get away with it?
“Every single show,” Crim says. “We have the world’s greatest safety net with this show. We can actually forget lines, or stuff won’t happen, and the audience has no idea.”
To coincide with “The Play That Goes Wrong’s” D.C. run, theater veterans with ties to various productions around town shared their favorite stories of unplanned shenanigans. Whether they’re silly, mortifying or some combination of the two, the anecdotes all serve as a testimony to the unpredictable wonder of live theater.
Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW; Tue. through Jan. 6, $49-$149.
No pants? No problem.
Alex Brightman knows that every performance is a new and exciting experience. That said, after two years appearing in the same production — as Brightman did from 2008 to 2010 in “Wicked” on Broadway — “you start to feel the rhythm of the show in your bones.”
“But sometimes,” he adds, “your bones are wrong.”
Toward the end of Act 1 in “Wicked,” Brightman’s character, the munchkin Boq, enters for a scene in which he comes to a startling realization and runs offstage in distress. One night, Brightman blanked. Before that scene, he went upstairs to his dressing room, began to take off his costume and started his intermission break.
“All of a sudden, I hear a cue that sounds remarkably similar to one of my cues,” Brightman says. “My heart leaps out of my ass and I start running out the door. I grab anything that’s on the clothing rack and start putting it on.”
Brightman made it onstage just a few seconds late. Then he stopped and processed what he was wearing: His Act 2 jacket, the wrong hat and, most notably, no pants.
“The entire cast is losing it watching me run — with no pants on — across the entire length of the Gershwin Theatre stage,” he says. “When I got offstage, I figured my career would be over. But everyone was very kind and comforting. And, at the very least, the audience that night got a show that has literally never happened before or since.”
Brightman appeared in “Beetlejuice” this past fall at the National Theatre.
Duct tape to the rescue
No one can question Marc Warzecha’s devotion to the saying “the show must go on.” That matter was settled on a Detroit stage back in 1999, when he played Mick Jagger for a sketch in the Second City revue “Daimlers Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”
“There was a moment where I was supposed to leap, as Mick Jagger, off of the stage out into the aisle of the audience, and I did it with great enthusiasm,” Warzecha says. “So much enthusiasm that I got a little too much height, landed and tore my ACL.”
After being dragged backstage by his castmates, Warzecha did what any sensible performer would do: wrap his knee in duct tape and soldier on with the second act.
“Afterward, I got business cards from three different lawyers that had been in the audience,” he says, “and one physical therapist.”
Warzecha co-wrote “Love, Factually,” running through Dec. 31 at the Kennedy Center.
Navigating an onstage misadventure is all the easier when a fellow actor lends a helping hand. Kimberly Gilbert witnessed one such instance in 2006, when she appeared in Woolly Mammoth Theatre’s production of “Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis.”
During the play, which featured a cart full of faux alcoholic beverages, David Bryan Jackson’s character had to pour a glass of a fruity cocktail — called a “Catastrophe” — for Sarah Marshall’s Martha to guzzle down. One day, as Gilbert watched that scene unfold while waiting for her cue to enter, she realized they were about to have a different kind of catastrophe on their hands: The glass pitcher containing the drink had somehow cracked, and was starting to drain.
“I see the red liquid in the Catastrophe pitcher slowly go down, go down, go down,” Gilbert says. “[Jackson] turns around and he sees that there’s no more Catastrophe in the pitcher and, bless his heart, he just freezes and goes, ‘Gin, then!’
“So he hands [Marshall] a full glass of gin. She, just as a consummate professional, gives this take out to the audience, take back to him, licks her lips and takes a big ol’ swig and goes, ‘Ugh!’”
Gilbert is appearing in “The Panties, The Partner and The Profit,” running through Jan. 6 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company.
The recurring nightmare is familiar to many an actor: You step onstage, but the lines have escaped you. It’s called “going up,” and it’s what happened to Stephen DeRosa last year when he played Charles Guiteau, the man who killed President James Garfield, in a production of “Assassins” at the Yale Repertory Theatre. In a moment like that, a creative ad-lib can be an actor’s saving grace.
“In his first speech, [Guiteau] lists his many professions,” DeRosa says. “I went blank and made up the professions of ‘teacher of the dance’ and ‘mung bean maker’ before I found my way back to the script.
“I have no idea how those professions came into my head. I didn’t even know what a mung bean was until after the fact. The cast had mixed reactions, from looks of pity to terror, but mostly fighting — unsuccessfully — not to laugh.”
DeRosa is appearing in “Anything Goes,” running through Dec. 23 at Arena Stage.
Bow to mob rule
When performing theater catered toward young crowds, an actor comes to understand that certain audience members won’t differentiate between the character and the performer.
Carly Heffernan learned as much in 2008, when she played the villain Gothel for a Toronto production of “Rapunzel.” In that take on the tale, Gothel comes to see the error of her ways and apologizes to Rapunzel for her misdeeds. But during one matinee, there was an attendee who wasn’t buying the repentance.
“An audience member, no more than 6 years old, stood up and yelled ‘liar!’” Heffernan says. “This led to the entire audience of children yelling ‘liar!’ at me for the remainder of the show and well into the curtain call. I loved every second of it.”
Heffernan is the director of “She the People,” running through Jan. 6 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre.
Awakening the dead
With decades under his belt as a prolific actor of stage and screen, Victor Raider-Wexler, 74, has seen it all. Yet when pinpointing the most memorable theater gaffe of his career, he still turns to an amateur production he performed in some six decades ago, in his hometown of Toledo, Ohio.
The play was “A Murder Has Been Arranged,” and the scene in question saw an actor smash a glass against a table while another performer, playing a dead woman, lay onstage a few feet away. Through a miscommunication, however, the shatterable prop glass was replaced one night with an unbreakable one.
“He threw the unbreakable glass down, and it bounced,” Raider-Wexler says. “And it bounced right under the skirt of the dead-bodied woman, who then sat up and went, ‘Oh!’ It brought down the house.”
Raider-Wexler is appearing in “Indecent,” running through Dec. 30 at Arena Stage.
Props can be improvised, too
Alfred Wilson had to be quick on his feet — quite literally — during a performance of “Gem of the Ocean” earlier this month at the Round House Theatre. At one point, his character enters to declare he has a letter that must be read. One can imagine, then, the panic that crossed Wilson’s mind when he realized he didn’t bring said letter onstage.
“I go, ‘Oh, I must’ve dropped it outside,’” Wilson says with a laugh. “So I ran backstage and one of the crew people has got his run sheets back there, and that’s the only piece of paper standing around. So I just grabbed his run sheet, folded it up and took it back out.
“I’m not going to say it was my artistry, but in the moment, it was that short of a time that [the audience] didn’t really get a chance to think about something screwed up.”
Wilson is appearing in “Gem of the Ocean,” running through Dec. 23 at the Round House Theatre.
Blocked by the fourth wall
Last month, during a performance of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” at the National Theatre, star Sarah Bockel saw what can happen when an actor takes preserving the fourth wall a little too seriously.
The show’s set features two doors, with the surrounding walls left to the audience’s (and actors’) imagination. During one performance, actor James Clow accidentally pulled the knob off a door and, unsure what else to do, tucked it in his pocket. When co-star Dylan S. Wallach subsequently entered for a scene with Bockel, he looked at the knob-less door and froze. Then he spent some time awkwardly pushing against the door, which wouldn’t budge.
Bockel waited on the other side, just trying to keep a straight face. Eventually, the obvious dawned on Wallach: He could just walk around the broken door and through the very-much imaginary wall.
“It was kind of goofy, and you could hear some snickers in the audience,” Bockel says. “You get these rules in your head you’re supposed to abide by. We just laugh.”
Bockel is appearing in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” running through Dec. 30 at the National Theatre.