December 18, 2010

"Mistakes Were Made"—But Not By this Actor

If there’s a would-be actor on your Christmas list then you can find him or her no better present than a ticket to see Mistakes Were Made, the satirical comedy about a producer trying to put together a Broadway show that is playing at the Barrow Street Theatre. 

In this case, however, it’s not so much the play that’s the thing, although it’s as entertaining as all get out. The main attraction here is the actor who is giving what is basically a one-man show that is the equivalent of a master class in acting. 

He is Michael Shannon, who is probably best known for his role as the mentally unstable realtor’s son in  the 2008 movie “Revolutionary Road” and now as Special Agent Nelson Van Alden on the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire.”  But Sheehan is a creature of the theater, in Chicago and New York, and with this performance he is staking his claim as one of the jungle’s big cats (click here to read an interview with him)

Mistakes Were Made charts a day in the life of a harried producer named Felix Artifex.  He’s trying to get a big-name Hollywood princeling (think “Twilight’s” Robert Pattinson or "Harry Potter’s" Daniel Radcliffe) to star in a play that's been written by a high-brow, first-time playwright who is finicky about his text. To raise money for the project, Felix has gone in on a shady deal to sell sheep in a dangerous unnamed desert country, but the deal isn’t going so well. To complicate matters even further, he’s still in love with his ex-wife who won’t answer his calls and with his pet goldfish Denise, who is his only friend and confidante. 

The play runs just 90-minutes and I have to confess that there are moments when that can seem too long.  Luckily, most of them are laughter-filled.  As regular readers know, it's not that easy to tickle my funny bone.  But I literally doubled over with laughter during this show.  And gauging from the yelps of delight that kept erupting all over the theater, other folks were having a good time too.

Admittedly, the house seemed filled with theater folks the night I saw Mistakes Were Made.  The kind of people who instantly got all the insidey references—not dropped names so much as playwright Craig Wright’s wry commentary on the familiar woes of commercial theater.

And because savvy ticket buyers can find discounts that make the show affordable on even a modest budget, the theater was filled with young people—many of whom gave off the air of  actors.  Some of them, like the guy in the row behind me, were back for a second or third time. Others had become part of a Shannon cult.  “Michael. Michael. Michael,” chanted one woman at the curtain call.  Others around her nodded in more restrained agreement.

Crafty. Angry. Pompous. Melancholy. Terrified. The character Felix offers a Crayola box of emotions for an actor to play. And since all of the action takes place in his crummy office  where the producer juggles phone calls relayed to him by a mostly unseen secretary, Shannon has to serve as his own scene partner.

The potential for falling into overacting is obvious—and tempting—particularly in the scenes when Felix gets hysterical. But, under the nimble direction of Dexter Bullard, Shannon walks right up to the edge and dangles his leg over that abyss without ever once losing his balance.  It’s a bravura performance.  And witnessing it would be a treat for any fledgling thespian. Or for any other theater lover.

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