By Howard Shapiro
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
You may have been challenged. You may have been intimidated. You may be dealing with people who put you in a compromised position. You may have had a bad day. No matter how bad, though, nothing as terrible as the day Felix Artifex is having.
But then, you probably don't deserve your day, and Artifex does. He is a manipulative, exploiting, disingenuous piece of scum -- in all other references, theater producer. Yes, Craig Wright's Mistakes Were Made, which opened in an 1812 Productions staging on Wednesday night, is yet one more insular piece of theater about the theater, but at least it's absurdly funny and best of all, self-mocking.
Mistakes Were Made is essentially a one-man show, and 1812 Productions has the man to do it: the busy actor Scott Greer, whose wife, Jennifer Childs, is the company's artistic director. Greer is alone for all but two minutes in the too-long 100-minute one-act, and he fills Bob Phillips' full-stage office set with the theater producer Felix Artifex, a character larger than life and overwhelmed by it.
Greer's eyes dart like a school of minnows in sunlit water as his character answers umpteen lines on his office phone, trying to connive everyone at once: the playwright whose turgid lump of script indexes the French revolution, the playwright's agent, the owner of the Broadway theater where the play may or may not run, the gigantically cool movie actor for whom the agent will do anything, the mag-cover actress who has never heard of this project and ... we're huffing from the marathon here ... some rebels holding up 15 guys herding 1,000 sheep on the other side of the world.
That last bunch is a dash of spice Wright throws in almost as an aside, and he weaves it awkwardly, but you get the picture: This is an office-worker show set at a desk and a phone with many lines, and dependent on two dyamics -- a script that builds an entire plot through the one-sided conversation we hear throughout, and a looming talent like Greer to bring it off.
Some of it is laugh-out-loud funny, some simply amusing; Greer's delivery becomes increasingly intense as the chaos he mismanages spreads -- he lies, begs, commands and cons in a two-faced trash-talk: "I'm just trying to do what's right for other people." "Life is unbearable -- and short." "You can't tell if it's doomed until you do it." "Things have to happen in order for them to occur."
It's impossible to keep this up at a level it demands without becoming shrill and static at some point, and it's a big credit to Greer that it happens later rather than sooner. He's momentarily comforted in his dithering by the presence of his office goldfish (puppeteer Georgia Schlessman) and is held somewhat in line by his orderly personal secretary (Amanda Grove).
She's a voice on his intercom until the last few minutes of the play when she comes on the set, just after the plot takes a sudden morose and cheap turn. Morose: The play suddenly becomes intensely serious when a new, unrelated situation comes to the fore. Cheap: We're supposed to deduce what that's about and react accordingly, with scant detail. Even cheaper: It's dropped like a bomb, and has the effect of one, after 90 minutes of rip-roaring all-for-fun.
I don't buy it. I also fail to purchase Matt Pfeiffer's hamhanded direction at this point, which up to now had been impressively fluid. Pfeiffer elongates the questionable ending by slo-o-o-o-w-ing it down with excruciatingly meaningless pauses that underscore Mistakes Were Made's jarring descent into unrevealing sourness. The script's turnabout is empty and the leaden silence is cold -- smashing, not enhancing, the tone and feel of the rest of the play and the production. Mistakes were made? In the end, I'd say so.
Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, firstname.lastname@example.org, or #philastage on Twitter. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org. Follow our theater coverage at www.philly.com/phillystage or on Facebook.