On the one hand, Craig Wright’s “Mistakes Were Made” is a straight-ahead showbiz satire, a portrait of an Off Broadway producer as craven commercialist. On that level, it’s cleverly crafted and robustly entertaining, if unsurprising. But there’s more. The play has been developed for and with the intense actor Michael Shannon (“Bug,” “Revolutionary Road”), an expert portrayer of the deep inner wound who couldn’t be further from the Zero Mostel/Max Bialystock-type figure of the producer who’ll do anything, usually with cheerful desperation. Wright and Shannon infuse that desperation with a very different edge, pursuing, and mostly pulling off, a satire possessing psychological and even existential insight.
In a bravura performance, Shannon plays Felix Artifex, whose theatrical credits are punchlines: Suzanne Somers as Medea, the Go-Go’s in “The Three Sisters.” He’s more schlubby than slick, but he’s a capable cajoler. He works the phone attempting to save from imminent collapse his most ambitious project ever, an epic drama of the French Revolution called “Mistakes Were Made.” It’s his chance, he tells his goldfish confidante Denise, to “launch something new. Something substantive.”
Much of the 100-minute work involves Felix attempting to lock down a commitment from a giant movie star on one phone line, while coaxing the Midwestern playwright on the other to accept the outrageous changes the star would like to see, including a new lead character and a new plot.
Meanwhile, his secretary Esther (Mierka Girten) — who remains almost entirely offstage — informs him of others on the lines demanding, and occasionally getting, Felix’s attention. There’s the theater owner ready to pull the plug, an investor craving some attention, the writer’s agent (who brings out Felix’s scorn).
It’s all ridiculously extreme and very funny, as Felix futilely feeds egos with efforts at eloquence. “You are a scientist of lines,” he tells the actor, a compliment that doesn’t go down well; the actor think that sounds “robotic.” “Life is unbearable and short,” he tells the writer in a line that seems self-reflective as well as useful, “and people want to be entertained.”
There’s extraordinarily impressive craft here all around. Wright and Shannon deftly make the one-sided phone conversations feel like full dialogue, and director Dexter Bullard has ensured there’s a constant comic momentum. No matter how familiar this particular take on showbiz dealmaking is, it’s done well.
The only problematic element is another narrative thread that threatens to overwhelm all — an adventure to raise money for “Mistakes” involving sheep in Iraq that might literally cost people their lives. While it adds a political layer, and certainly contributes to the build of the piece, it lacks clarity. Exactly what is this arrangement and how did Felix get himself mixed up in it? It also goes so far over-the-top in its outcome that it makes Felix’s own potential epiphany seem inconsequential.
In Shannon’s hands, Felix is on the constant edge of a giant personal epiphany. The oblique references to a dead daughter, and his willingness to drop all calls for the ex-wife he desperately misses, confirm that Felix is indeed a wounded soul.
It’s that component that makes “Mistakes Were Made” genuinely interesting. Felix doesn’t just want to put on a show or make money. The play is in large part a character study of a man seeking redemption but inescapably creating destruction. He is, in essence, killing things with love, a metaphor made manifest in Felix’s addiction to constantly feeding his already obese goldfish and confidante, Denise, depicted here using very effective puppetry.
His relationship with the fish leads to the play’s most memorable moment, a climactically comic sequence that manages to top the expected. It also sums up the achievement. Wright and Shannon keep all this from feeling solely superficial and purely comic while still delivering, in a tour-de-force fashion, a pure comedy about superficiality.