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Mistakes Were Made

(Feb 2011: Barrow Street Theater — New York)

Mistakes Were Made fearlessly brings literature to the stage of the Barrow Street Theatre. With irony and extremely funny dialogue, West Village playwright Craig Wright nails modern angst on a theatrical cross—for redemption in the beauty of a seriously flawed world. 


Michael Shannon, who received an Academy Award nomination for his role as the mentally ill son in Revolutionary Road, channels quirky energy into a multi-faceted, empathetic character. With all pistons firing throughout this 90-minute show, he consistently hits the mark, showcasing a furious talent for dramatic sensitivity and a nuanced range of comedy.


Shannon is Felix Artifex, an Off-Broadway producer, trying to pull together a theatrical extravaganza of the French Revolution, called Mistakes Were Made. He hopes this project will propel his career into the strata of recognition deemed success, and maybe help stage a comeback with his estranged wife.


Mistakes Were Made
A new comedy written by Craig Wright. Directed by Dexter Bullard.
With Michael Shannon and Mierka Girten.
Barrow Street Theater, 27 Barrow Street at 7th Avenue South; (212) 868-4444; smarttix.com.
Running through Feb. 27.



It’s not just Shannon’s compelling performance under Dexter Bullard’s intuitive directing, but the complexity of Wright’s script that provides a remarkable experience. 


Mistakes Were Made, the play about the making of a play, brings the theater of the absurd to a contemporary form. In a self mocking, hilarious moment of irony, quaking with intensity, Felix stomps about a messy, disheveled stage, raging how Mistakes Were Made will take Broadway by a storm. At one point, when Felix is asking for a re-write, he even suggests that it can be a play, layering over another play, like a little blanket, so the play is layered and deepened.


The story unflinchingly hits the existential question of finding meaning by achieving some accomplishment, up against the inevitability of a finite existence on Earth. It aims and shoots straight at the heartache of wanting to do something with your life, wanting to be someone, and the losses and compromises made along the way. Unburdening himself to a pet fish (an original character, a silent puppet in an aquarium), Felix brings the notion that Hell is other people into today’s experience.


“I just don’t get it. Somehow or other, these people are seeing the same sun come up that I see, watching the same sun go down. They’re hearing the same tick tick tick of the ravenous clock, but they are clearly not experiencing the same sense of desperation and enthusiasm that I am. They are not feeling the cosmic demand. Is it mournful? It’s positively mournful the way this world is so thickly populated with negators.”


Felix remembers the world before it became so complicated. He recollects his first love of the theater from a childhood Hansel and Gretel puppet show. He describes the perfection of a little house in a green and blue, dark forest, with little candle footlights (and no fire marshals). It’s an idealistic innocence, a Garden of Eden (but with a sense of humor). 


In the adult world, Felix tries to cajole Johnny Bledsoe, a leading Hollywood celebrity, big on ego but absurd on ideas, to star in the play, while urging the writer, Steven Nelson, to compromise on the script. He returns to that candle-lit forest but with Faustian temptations easily grasped by 21st century sensibilities. 


“Then listen to me, Steven, my little principled friend. You can make a life-long shining career right now, a candle-lit path through the dark woods of life, so that, at the end, when you step out into the open field with the wet grass on your toes and the sun coming up, you can dig your own grave in the soft brown earth and lay down in it, smiling, saying, ‘I did it. I did it, Dad. I had a career.’”


That the show must go on reaches unwieldy heights in urgent phone calls with agents, promoters—people in the theater business. The desperate chaos spreads to Felix’s money raising venture of disinfecting/dipping sheep in a far away, war torn country. Sheep dipping is CIA parlance for covert operations. It’s no small coincidence that Condi Rice, former President George Bush and “torture memo” lawyer, Alberto Gonzales, have all also said, “mistakes were made”—a refrain that punctuates this comedy, which looks at fault and accountability.   


Wry humor coats much of the dialogue, including Felix’s negotiations with a terrorist. “Give my men back their clothes. Stop making them perform those derivative stunts! Please put them back in the truck. You’re better than that, Mr. Shaheen.” In comical frustration Felix says, “You go your merry way. They’ll go their merry way. No! They will not follow you!” explaining there are infinite “merry ways” in a free, democratic Western civilization. 


The twists in the plot referencing Iraq are critical, not only to the play’s title, but to encompass a theme of disarray in this world.  We’ve stepped outside the Garden of Eden and live in the aftermath of biting into the apple. With layered meanings (the play poking fun at Les Miserables and Broadway blockbuster musicals), Felix says his play is also about a war, not too different from the events in Mr. Shaheen’s country.


On one level, the play is a one-man festival of snappy, humor to enjoy. But more substantially and subtly, it’s intensely packed with layers of meanings for interpretation. Those having more than a superficial desire to sit in a cool, dark room and to be entertained will get it. Wright ultimately speaks to grace and redemption, despite all Hell breaking lose in unimaginable ways. Somewhere between childhood innocence, and the sprawling, desperate, messy world of adult compromises, somewhere between those extremes, emerges redemption and happiness. The world will be OK. The triumph of humanity through love, friendship and the comedy of our imperfections occurs when “Mistakes Were Made”.


Betsy Kim is a writer living in New York City.


Betsy Kim is a writer, living in New York City.


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