"Mistakes Were Made" immerses you in comic chaos. Tony Braithwaite, artistic director at Act II Playhouse, shines as Felix Artifex.
For more than an hour, "Mistakes Were Made" immerses you in comic chaos. Tony Braithwaite, artistic director at Act II Playhouse, shines as Felix Artifex. It is mostly a one-man show, but sometimes Braithwaite shares the spotlight with a bloated goldfish named Denise.
Felix is a small-time producer in New York City. After a career filled with forgettable shows, he sees a chance to redeem his life when he reads the manuscript of "Mistakes Were Made," a play set during the time of the French Revolution. "Mistakes" is about Felix's frenzied effort to get the show on the road.
He pleads, lies and cajoles contending stakeholders in a ceaseless stream of phone calls. His first problem is Johnny Bledsoe, a hotshot actor Felix needs for star power. Felix offers him the role of King Louie XIV. But Johnny tells Felix the role is not big enough for him. "What can be bigger than playing a king," Felix asks.
Johnny tells him he wants to be "The Kid," a pal of Robespierre. This is Felix's first problem. There is no "Kid" character in the play. Felix telephones Steven Nelsen to ask for a rewrite, stroking the ego of the recalcitrant playwright with a cascade of ploys. And so it goes.
The harried, devious producer is a familiar trope. Playwright Craig Wright tries to keep it fresh. His script is replete with showbiz digs, gags, and wordplay, beginning with the very name "Felix Artifex," an echoing mix of "Felix Unger" and "artifice." At one point, Felix says of his show, "You can't tell if it's doomed until you do it," one of many mangled reflections.
Tony Braithwaite attacks the role of Felix Artifex with unbounded zest. He makes dramatic use of his hands and his overall body language comically betrays the telephone arguments he peddles. Sometimes the discrepancy is so shameless Goldfish Denise shakes her toothed mouth in disapproval, (puppeteer, Laura Mancano).
Scenic designer Adam Riggar takes advantage of Act II theater's long stage to create a convincing Manhattan office. Posters of past productions adorn the walls. The tidy, professional order of the office grows disheveled, a visual parallel of Felix's burgeoning distress.
Secretary Esther (Renee McFillin), unseen behind a glass wall, channels a never-ending stream of calls. Even as he tries to placate prima donna show people, beleaguered Felix wrestles with another bunch of characters involved in a production finance venture.
In cahoots with a mysterious Belgian woman, you learn Felix cooked up a ludicrous scheme to sell 1,000 dipped sheep, now stranded in a Middle East desert. The ten men involved in their transport have been stripped naked by flame-throwing terrorists. You never get to the bottom of this. Much like Middle East politics, these calls are a chaotic muddle.
As Felix nears collapse, he stops taking phone calls. Lights dim as he slumps in a chair beside his beloved Denise to confide that he attended a play when he was six years old and found it magical. He just wanted to belong in that world, "But this is what it comes to," he says.
"Mistakes" is so racing you need this change of pace as much as Felix. In these few moments, you learn enough about Felix to make him an everyman character. He grieves the loss of his daughter and had hoped to reunite with his estranged wife Dolores through the play project. Then Felix steps back into the fray.
The one-sided phone argument is a standard comic setup, but it is hard to sustain a play solely through these means. Tony Braithwaite also directs the show and cuts the playing time of "Mistakes" to 75 minutes, down from the 90 minutes of other productions.
Since its premiere in Chicago in 2009, there have not been a lot of "Mistakes" productions. Wright's script is only satirical in a glancing way, and both his character and comedic approach are familiar. That you have seen it all before greatly burdens the actor.
Tony Braithwaite enjoys a theatrical challenge and he succeeds here, in part because he is drawn toward this type of character. Felix Artifex is right out of the Neil Simon playbook, a frustrated New Yorker who overcomes his tortured pettiness to win new peace of mind.
Act II Playhouse is located at 56 E. Butler Ave., Ambler Pa. "Mistakes Were Made" runs through April 16. Tickets available at 215-654-0200, or at www.act2.org.