Mistakes Were Made
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
November 12, 2010
Mel Brooks lied. Being a producer doesn't involve lunch at Sardi's every day. Sometimes, it's just a few slices of ham on a croissant in your cluttered office while you're screaming at people on the telephone.
Just ask Felix Artifex, the harried producer at the center of Craig Wright's laugh riot Mistakes Were Made at the Barrow Street Theatre. As played by the brilliant Michael Shannon, the volatile Felix wouldn't even be allowed near Sardi's, let alone invited by someone to lunch there.
Felix is trying to get a new production off the ground, a play with a very thick script called "Mistakes Were Made." It's about the French Revolution. There's a movie star interested in slumming it on Broadway in this play, but he doesn't want to be the lead, he wants to be the other guy, and he wants that part beefed up. The playwright doesn't want to change the script. The theatre owner is about to pull Felix from the line up, in favor of a musical version of To Kill a Mockingbird. And maybe, just maybe, Felix may have inadvertently sent ten men to their deaths in a bizarre fundraising effort involving sheep. Such is life for a man in the theatre.
Wright's script, peppered with some fantastic one-liners and observations ("Life is unbearable and short and people want to be entertained") is quite a workout for the actor playing Felix, on stage for the entire play, essentially alone (there is a secretary, Esther, who is largely off stage), on the telephone, acting and responding to conversation that doesn't exist. In Shannon's ultra-capable hands, Felix comes to glorious life as a lover of theatre who is consciously aware that this love has doomed him for the rest of his life.
But Felix also has some feelings. He knows what's right and what's wrong, and doesn't want to spend his days trying to cajole celebrities into signing or playwrights into changing their work. But there's nothing else, except the fish that he's overfeeding (providing for an uproariously hilarious sequence towards the end), the ex-wife who won't return his calls, and the dead daughter at whom they vaguely hint.
In Dexter Bullard's breakneck production (with a nifty, messy set by Tom Burch), Shannon, thoroughly mesmerizing in his madness, delivers one of the best and most well-thought-out performances I've seen all year. He makes Felix, a creature who could easily be devoid of pity, pitiful and charismatic. He even makes the sudden tonal shift at the very end—the major pitfall of Wright's script—seem natural. Mierka Girten has a nice little cameo as the put upon Esther and puppeteer Sam Deutsch imbues the wide-eyed fish with a full personality.
Those with short attention spans may get bored at some point during Mistakes Were Made, but they shouldn't give up on it. Shannon makes every minute, every second, valuable. And worth watching.