BWW Reviews: A Showbiz Tour de Force at Artists Rep, But MISTAKES WERE MADE
Late one afternoon in a theatrical office in Manhattan, a theater producer is trying to put together a production of a play about the French Revolution. He's trying to raise the money via a scheme to transport sheep in the Middle East, he's schmoozing a couple of movie stars into appearing in the play, and he's trying to reassure the author that the artistic integrity of the production is of utmost importance...while also trying to talk him into rewriting the play to accommodate the whims of said movie stars. Plus he's trying to get back with his ex-wife.
It's a complicated day for Felix Artifex, and as the sun sets outside his office window, we watch him work the phones for an hour and a half, aided (somewhat) by his overwhelmEd English secretary. His only solace is an overweight fish named Denise and the hope that maybe his ex will return his calls.
Craig Wright's play Mistakes Were Made is more or less a one-man show. Felix, played by Michael Mendelson, becomes increasingly frantic, bouncing from call to call, screaming obscenities one second and sweet-talking the people who can help him the next. It's funny to watch him get more and more frantic as the buttons on his phone light up and his secretary keeps buzzing him with more urgent bulletins. But the fun becomes wearying as the yelling continues for about two thirds of the ninety-minute play, and I became annoyed with Felix. Couldn't he stop and slow down for a moment? (Listening to someone rant for an hour nonstop is not entertaining.) Eventually something happens offstage that makes Felix slow down and take a moment, and the last half hour or so is a bit more thoughtful and nuanced. Felix stops being a joke machine and finds his humanity, and the play ends on a hopeful note, which sends the audience out feeling better.
I don't blame Mr. Mendelson for this. He directed the play and then took over the lead role when the original actor had to leave the production. He's playing what Mr. Wright gave him, a character with little soul or integrity, a cliched showbiz character who's telling everyone what they want to hear in order to get what he wants from them. It backfires, as it usually does in these situations, but the character keeps trying. Mr. Mendelson is hilarious at first, juggling calls and switching moods every time he pushes a button. But the playwright has created a monologue that quickly gets monotonous, and the actor's skill can only do so much to paper over the flaws. (I hate snarky reviews that pick on a play with an unfortunate title, but Mistakes Were Made is an easy target.)
The production at Artists Rep is beautifully put together. The scenic design by Jeff Seats is an archetype of every rundown New York office you've ever seen, with some posters on the walls that will have you laughing before the play even begins. Puppet designer Jane Cluiston and puppeteer Liz Ghiz make the fish, Denise, a bright and engaging presence on the stage. Lucy Paschall does a wonderful job making Esther, the secretary, a fully realized character even though she spends most of her time as a voice over the intercom.
I'm sure there's a deeper meaning underneath the showbiz machinations of Mr. Artifex. Perhaps he's meant to be a metaphor for the economy, or U.S. foreign policy, or the way showbiz infects nearly all of our lives on a daily basis. Metaphors are mostly wasted on me; I just want to go to the theater and see a good story with engaging characters, told in an interesting and unique way. I got some of that in Mr. Mendelson's performance. But oh, there could have been more.