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Songs from The Producers and There’s No Business Like Show Business were part of the overture on Saturday night as the audience gathered for Act II Playhouse’s production of Craig Wright’s Mistakes Were Made. The irony of these tunes here is even stronger once you’ve seen the show. This isn’t just a farce about the chaotic and horrible reality of actually being a Broadway producer, but also a product of a similar hyper-verbal, neurotic, affluent-but-strained screwball style, akin to Mel Brooks or His Girl Friday. The result is a wildly entertaining and often hilarious show which also knows how to pack an emotional gut punch.
Mistakes Were Made is directed by and stars Tony Braithwaite as Felix Artifex, a would-be theater mogul whose office is littered with bad posters like Death of A Salesman… starring Jamie Farr. Felix is trying desperately to mount a play about the French Revolution which he believes is his last chance for greatness after years of “crap.” But this also involves juggling a dozen increasingly fraught phone calls with actors, their agents, theater owners, easily offended playwrights, and even sheep wranglers in Iraq, not to mention Felix’s fish, Denise (performed by puppeteer Laura Mancano), whom he keeps feeding and confiding in, as well as his panicked secretary Esther (Renee McFillin), seen mostly in shadow.
A bravura solo performance
The role requires a bravura and largely solo performance in which Felix reacts, often silently, to unheard characters, but it works. The comedy arrives in part from Felix’s often stunned or horrified reactions to what he’s hearing on the other end, as well as the escalating absurdity of, say, a thespian’s request to play a “Sundance Kid” type in 18th-century France. Michael Shannon was a great fit for the maniacal part on Broadway, and Braithwaite nails the piece’s tricky shift from comedy to pathos.
After all, the title of the play within the play is Mistakes Were Made, and this doesn’t just double as a description of what happens as Felix tries to balance numerous show-biz demands while popping pills and dealing with a hostage crisis. It also works beautifully as a description of Felix’s own regrets and what now drives him to make something, anything, out of this script. As much as Felix is spinning and lying through his teeth with half his meetings, what’s poignant, as he reveals to Denise when James Leitner’s lights dim, is he really does care about “putting on a show.”
War on Terror error
If there’s a hitch, it’s the tired and offensive xenophobic and Islamophobic jokes which pop up here and there as Felix negotiates with Iraqi terrorists. These were bad late-night bits in 2005, five years before the play’s premiere, and they date the show to the War on Terror era. The idea of sheep being held hostage is funny enough without ethnic insults. The Act II audience got a kick out of them, but I was surprised they weren’t cut from the show.
Still, this is largely a delightful surprise, from Felix’s tongue-tied witticisms (“You can’t tell if it’s doomed until you do it”), to Mancano’s maneuvering of the gargantuan and intelligent Denise. The play revels in twists and turns, whether for laugh-out-loud dialogue or to reveal something deeper. Felix tells playwright Steven, “Nobody cares what they see, they’re just there to sit in the dark and be happy!” But this mostly satisfying production proves that isn’t true at all.
What, When, Where
Mistakes Were Made. By Craig Wright, directed by Tony Braithwaite. $32-$40 ($15 for students). Through April 16, 2023, at Act II Playhouse, 56 East Butler Avenue, Ambler. (215) 654-0200 or act2.org.
Act II Playhouse is a wheelchair-accessible facility with elevator access to the theater, lobbies, and restrooms. Patrons who cannot climb stairs should call the box office in advance to arrange entry to the venue via ramp.
Masks are not required.
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