Thursday, August 25, 2011 / 8:16 AM
Greetings once again, my beloved theatricons! Feels like donkey's years since we've chatted. So, whatcha been doin'? Kids back to the ol' backpack grind, are they? Swell. I seem to recall that last we spoke I was totting on about some grand production or other—musical, was it? Well, buddy, this ain't that! No, indeed, The Midnight Company's current production of Craig Wright's Mistakes Were Made, directed by Sarah Whitney, is, for all practical intents, a one-man show, though if we're going to get all pedantic and specific about the whole thing, there's a woman in it, too. And a largely inanimate goldfish. Oh, and it's pretty funny. You still like funny, right?
Craig Wright's play about a frenzied and frazzled Broadway producer debuted in Chicago a few years back, and had a decently received New York run—in both cases, the inimitable Michael Shannon played Felix Artifex, the beleaguered lead. Felix is hard-up for a hit and believes he has all the right fish sniffing his tackle, if he can just cajole them into the project. The Midwestern family-man playwright with the French Revolution epic and the big-screen star with “script ideas” just need the right stroking and hand-holding and the show's a go. He's willing to skirt the truth, obfuscate and outright lie to playwright, stars, agent, whomever.
Meanwhile he pines for his lost love Dolores, overfeeds his goldfish, Denise, and monitors the direr-by-the-minute fate of a few thousand sheep in an unspecified Middle-Eastern desert who have had the misfortune of becoming entangled in a scheme to generate revenue for the production in question. This last sub-plot has him dealing variously with Italian shepherds, terrorists and a representative of a Blackwater-esque mercenary group. The narrative develops through a conceit that made Bob Newhart famous (but was used equally by a pre-”no respect” Rodney Dangerfield and later a young Ellen Degeneres), the one-sided phone call. If you're thinking that mightn't be enough to hang an hour-and-a-half on, you're not off base.
While Wright's knack for surprising comic turns of phrase (“details are a gateway drug!”) keeps the entertainment level steady, the story he develops via Felix's phone system instills mostly curiosity, while not a preponderance of care. Mistakes often feels like a one-act that's been blown up with a tire-pump. There's a ton of great stuff for a skilled actor to chew on, and it's a slick slice-of-life snapshot strewn with theater-world allusions and gags, but there's not enough story to carry it through. Throw in a tacked-on ending and you have an often very entertaining but ultimately less-than-compelling play. These, of course, amount to a critique of Wright's work, but what of Midnight's production? With one or two lags and glitches, they've put together a very amusing, moving and memorable show
You've no doubt seen or heard the term “an actor's actor” bandied about by critics, though no one ever seems to break down what it is they mean by it—we're just supposed to know. For me an “actor's actor” isn't just good, but intentionally good. Well, what does that mean? Their success on stage derives from choices, insight, design and experience, and that work and preparation comes through in their performance. These are the actors from whom other actors hope to steal. I mean folks like Joe Hanrahan, this show's Felix Artifex, and the co-founder/artistic director of The Midnight Company. This is his showpiece, and he rides it for all its worth, from harried exhortations of his would-be star, to fever-pitched spitballing with his playwright, to poignant introspection and resignation, this is Hanrahan's baby all the way.
The pacing could be a bit more brisk in the beginning, when Wright's script is just broad-brushing Felix for us, and I wondered why his opening conversation was so static—center-stage, delivered in three-quarter profile with scarce movement. (I was put in mind of that overused TV commercial technique we all found so disconcerting in the Michelle Bachmann video a while back.) As the stakes get higher, however, Hanrahan really fires on all cylinders in his manic, Ahab-ian pursuit of “Mistakes Were Made,” the play which consumes his efforts. A favorite bit of mine is the little fist-pump with which Hanrahan punctuates the play's name with its every utterance—the fist is there whether Felix is leading the charge or nearing defeat, its forcefulness a barometer of our poor producer's plight. I could parse the performance for every laugh-line and wistful aside, but there'd be no point. Joe Hanrahan is an actor's actor, and he nails this character to the wall. That he somehow manages to do it twice a night on Saturdays is nothing short of miraculous.
I mentioned earlier that there is another flesh-and-blood character in this show. Please do not mistake my not having mentioned Esther yet as any sort of commentary on the performance of Emily Piro—it's a should be taken as commentary on Craig Wright's script. Esther is Felix Artifex's secretary. Here's the deal with Esther: she's a tool. Not like your brother-in-law Brody is a tool, but like she's a device. She's how Wright deals with the problem of letting us know to whom Felix is currently speaking. And that he's not supposed to be compulsively feeding the goldfish. Some productions have her exist as a disembodied voice in an intercom, simply because the script doesn't endow her with much in the way of humanity. Piro does a splendid job in a thankless role, and actually got Hanrahan back on track opening night when he jumped the gun on a line, calmly suggesting the name of the person he ought to have asked her to contact on the phone. Cucumber cool, I thought.
Mistakes Were Made is evidence that a great show doesn't have to derive from a perfect piece of writing. Craig Wright is certainly an exceptionally gifted writer, don't get me wrong, and has the list of accolades and credits to prove it. This play, however, demands a skilled actor to do the heavy lifting, giving him a jumble of wacky situations and circumstances, peppering these liberally with some legitimately brilliant and memorable chunks of phraseology, but insisting that this actor somehow herd these cats successfully for ninety minutes. Joe Hanrahan carries it off with charm and zeal in a performance you really owe it to yourself to check out.
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