Feature

Mistakes Were Made

“I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard and so often at the theater,” said Erik Haagensen in Backstage.

Barrow Street Theatre
New York
(212) 868-4444

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Thanks to a “tour de force” comic performance by Michael Shannon, Mistakes Were Made is “100 minutes of high-octane bliss,” said Erik Haagensen in Backstage. The story of a small-time producer’s desperate attempt to bring a historical epic to Broadway with just his wits and his telephone, it’s essentially Shannon’s one-man show. Sure, Craig Wright’s script provides some “explosively funny” material. As low-rent huckster Felix Artifex, Shannon also fields a stream of speakerphone messages from his secretary (“another delicious source of humor”) and shares some of his worries with a morbidly obese goldfish. But listening to Shannon juggle calls on 10 phone lines is all the entertainment I could ask for. “I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard and so often at the theater.”

Still, “a satisfyingly whole play is not easily constructed from half of a conversation,” said Charles Isherwood in The New York Times. We hear Artifex chatting up a variety of quirky characters, from the play’s novice writer to the prissy Hollywood star who’s being courted for the lead. The quirks of these unheard sounding boards add texture, but they also undermine the story’s plausibility. Artifex himself is a type that went extinct long ago, and the idea that even he would bet everything on a no-name writer is highly unlikely. Whenever Artifex “interrupts his spiel to let his callers have a word,” the audience is given “a little too much time” to ponder such holes.

But Wright didn’t intend Mistakes as a simple showbiz satire, said Scott Brown in New York. It’s obvious “from minute one” that Shannon’s old-school flimflammer is overmatched, and the character is so maniacally devoted to pitching that “it’s far from clear” whether he believes in the pitch himself. As Artifex slides into a full-scale meltdown, Wright’s farce becomes more than a modern gloss on Mel Brooks’ The Producers. It offers a trenchant commentary on “the widening chasm” in our world “between magical thinking and actual achievement.”

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