Monday, November 22, 2010

THEATER: Mistakes Were Made

[Originally published in Show Business Weekly]

Photo/Ari Mintz

How do you put an original play on Broadway? To Craig Wright, the comically dazzling writer of Mistakes Were Made, it involves selling out your playwright, placating your celebrity, denigrating everyone else’s agent, threatening the theatrical bookers, and, oh, a little bit of overseas negotiation with angry Afghanis and truckloads of sheep. Don't be fooled by the title: It’s just more of the show’s self-deprecating insider wit. Between director Dexter Bullard and the Atlas-like performer Michael Shannon (poised to devour Jeremy Piven's career), there's not a single mistake in this outstanding one-man farce.

The show begins with cheapo producer Felix Artifex (he’s done Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Erik Estrada and Rosanne Barr) assuring the star he's wrangling that his only job is to do what's right for other people. It's not long before he switches phone lines, however, to butter up the playwright with some complementary lies ("He loves the script: his words, not mine") before suggesting a few rewrites. "Life is unbearable and short," he says of this epic French Revolution play, "and people want to be entertained." However, as the phone lines begin to light up faster and faster, driving Artifex to pace around the room on headset, a cartoonish, suspender-clasping caricature — but one with good intentions and a generous heart (watch him feed his fish) — the lies and the stakes grow larger.

Mistakes Were Made is filled with absurdity, but since it's all handled over the phone, filtered through Shannon's gravel-serious cajoling and chiseled horror (his eyes grow rather wide, his jaw plummets precipitously, his hair seems to grow whiter), we get caught up in what would otherwise be a shallow situation. (Consider the way Mark Rylance elevated Boeing Boeing.) Additionally, the novelty of verbal reversals (as opposed to physical pivots) reinvigorates the farce: because he's forced to work from his desk, without the ability for actual violence, his energies are channeled and amplified, as is his pitiable and ultimately helpless situation. It makes Shannon seem simultaneously subdued and frenetic, psychopathic yet endearing, and — in the biggest reversal of all — allows him to play against his normally dead-serious types (Boardwalk Empire, Bug).

Here's the lesson: When it comes to theater, there's no mistaking talent.

1 comment:

Esther said...

I liked the a lot play but I loved Michael Shannon's performance. He does elevate the material. It's hard to believe Felix has enough clout to mount a Broadway production and there's nothing very revelatory but Craig Wright certainly has assembled all of the players in a very entertaining way. And just the way Shannon adopted a different tone depending on who was on the phone was amazing. And he really had me believing there was someone on the other end of the line. It's a Tony-worthy performance off Broadway.