“I’m just a producer,” pleads Felix Artifex, producer (played by Michael Shannon, genius). “I’m just someone who tries to do what’s right for other people.” And with this passionately insincere declaration of totally insupportable good intentions, we’re off. Craig Wright’s Mistakes Were Made is 90 furious, fulminating, very funny minutes of American hucksterism in extremis, a symphonic one-man meltdown that pits Shannon’s rapidly unraveling old-school deal-maker, his office phone affixed to his face like a respirator, against nine flickering lines of incoming chaos. All he’s trying to do is put on a little show, by any means necessary (up to and including a mysterious sheep-dipping concern in rural Iraq, in which he’s a tenuous partner). “I have a wonderful new play in my pocket by a fantastic writer named Steven Nelson,” he croaks propitiously to one of many half-interested parties, “It’s called Mistakes Were Made, and it’s slated to appear on Broadway this fall and it’s about the French Revolution, which I never knew much about, but which now gets me feeling very sentimental every time I think about it.”
Wright (the prolific author of Recent Tragic Events and The Pavilion, and the creator of TV’s Dirty Sexy Money) is pretty sentimental himself, with a knack for the singsong rhythms of the pathetic and a hair-trigger wit to palliate all the desperation he unleashes. He’s written a glorious absurdist showpiece for Shannon, his longtime collaborator and fellow member of Chicago’s Red Orchid Theater troupe (which premiered Mistakes last year). Shannon, best known for his pop-eyed contributions to Revolutionary Road and Boardwalk Empire, has a voice like a coffee grinder packed with gravel and paving tar. His lantern jaw looks misaligned, as if it’s jumped its tracks from too much teeth-grinding, and his eternal-ingenue hairstyle and retro-depressive wardrobe here suggest a Frankenstein mash-up of Aaron Sorkin and Garrison Keillor. He occupies the kind of classically shabby midtown showbiznik’s office that started to biodegrade the minute Bloomberg deprived it of its preservative Camel smoke. (The walls are plastered with distressingly plausible posters for awful-looking revivals featuring stunt-cast Hollywood celebrities.)
Smartphone-less and laptop-free, Felix could be anywhere from a weary 40 to a fighting 65, a man dislodged from his habitual late-twentieth-century discomfort zone and thrust into a newly fragmented cosmos. He’s an old fuse sputtering to channel surging energies he can barely conceive of, positioned as he is in “the hub of the Western World … trying like hell with my two free hands to do whatever I can to draw all these disparate, tragic, lonely, lovely forces together.” On line three, he’s trying to simultaneously soothe and snow a touchy writer (who’s “in the Heartland, with your wife and kid … your cute little family, your 10,000 things, your grocery lists, strollers, your torn-up floors … [you’re] working your day job but getting ideas, which is what I love about you”). On line six, he’s courting a pretentious movie star for the lead (and, in the process, trying to invent a lead for him to play, “a plucky, haunted, baguette-swinging street kid”). On lines seven through nine, he’s reluctantly conducting some disastrous ovine adventure in the Middle East. Felix is overmatched from minute one: His tenacity is matched only by his utter vacuity and reflexive mendacity, but even these proven tools of the trade can’t save him now. He’s fighting a multiline war in a nonlinear world, playing three-dimensional chess in a league that’s moved to four. And if his style sounds a tad more Wilshire Boulevard than 42nd Street, well, he’s not a literal theater producer, just as Mistakes Were Made isn’t a literal story. (Indeed, its most on-the-nose moments are also its weakest.) This isn’t a satire about the theater business, or about show business in general: It’s about the widening chasm between the pitch and the follow-through, magical thinking and actual achievement.
Mistakes Were Made isn’t throwing curves: Every catastrophe is telegraphed (that’s part of the point), and no industry cliché is left undeployed. What distinguishes it is Wright’s savory language, his antic pessimism, his lyric ear for colloquial emotional distress — and way Shannon tears into it all with the ferocious hunger of a hung-over zombie. His scene partners, for most of the play, are his telephone, his cup of coffee, his conspicuously un-eaten lunch, and his dangerously over-loved goldfish. With only these, and the occasional assist from a mostly offstage secretary (Mierka Girten), Shannon and his director, the dexterous Dexter Bullard, create a collapsible farce with no doors, no exits. “No, I am not mentally ill, Steven,” Felix corrects. “I am imaginative, hopeful, and driven.” He then proceeds to riff, on the fly, a happy ending for the French Revolution. To the great credit of Shannon and Wright, it’s far from clear whether Felix believes himself anymore, or even hears his own voice, having leveraged so much of himself in his ridiculous pitch. He may be an empty man, but even emptiness can be a governing force. Felix is his own source of gravitation, a spinning emptiness around which a small “imaginative” universe rotates. Once he implodes, what do we do then? Who’ll put on the big show?
At the Barrow Street Theatre; open run.