Make No Mistake -- "Mistakes..." Well Worth Seeing
By Geary Danihy
How do you produce a screwball comedy when you only have one screwball? Well, said sole screwball had better be very good, and Will LeBow is very good, and his tour de force performance is justification enough for wending your way up to Hartford to see Mistakes Were Made, a one-act play by Craig Wright that recently opened at Hartford Stage.
LeBow, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Tony Shalhoub, the actor who plays the neurotic detective Monk on the USA Network show of the same name, is Felix Artifex (read “artifice”), a Broadway producer whose major claim to fame is that he once put together a production of Medea starring Suzanne Somers. The wall behind his desk is festooned with play posters with equally unlikely combinations of actors and properties, but Felix believes he has a hot script that will justify all of his false starts and pandering to star egos. It’s called Mistakes Were Made, a full-blown dramatic epic of the French Revolution. The only problem is, he doesn’t have confirmed backing and he doesn’t have confirmed name talent (as in Jude Law playing the role of Hamlet) that will bring the great theatrically unwashed into the seats. So, he works his phone, taking calls fielded by his harried yet understanding secretary, Esther (Susan Greenhill), only a voice and a shadow against a door’s frosted window until late in the play.
Over the course of the evening Artifex talks, over and over again, with: an owner of a theater he has optioned; a male movie star who just might take the lead role in the play, if “minor” changes are made to the script; his ex-wife; the earnest young playwright who believes his script is sacrosanct; the playwright’s “bitch” agent; several Italian truck drivers who are delivering a heard of sheep to somewhere deep in Iraq (sale of said sheep will help fund the production); a terrorist/bandit leader who has shanghaied the 10-truck sheep caravan and is threatening to steal, rape, pillage and murder, not necessarily in that order; an American major general in Iraq in charge of forces that might save the sheep drivers if the privates, corporals and sergeants can tear themselves away from their basketball game; and finally a young starlet’s California coterie.
Oh, yes, when he puts down the phone, Artifex rolls his wheeled chair over to an aquarium where Denise, a harlequin-colored carp, lazily swims back and forth, rising to the surface when Artifex feeds her, which he does on a regular angst-driven basis (program notes suggest that it is important that this species not be overfed.)
Denise is, in fact, a puppet fish created and worked by puppeteer Stefano Brancato, and here we have the first reservation about all of this delightful chaos. The puppet fish, secure in its aquarium prominently set stage right, just…well, swims, rises to eat and is addressed by Artifex as he takes a break from the caustic and chaotic phone conversations. Why have a puppeteer working the fish if the “creature” doesn’t do anything other than be a fish? There are wonderful possibilities here for the “fish” to comment, either by motion or actual voice (Hey, this is a screwball comedy, remember?), but they are not taken advantage of. The fish is a great set-up that unfortunately goes nowhere.
Next (initial) reservation, and this goes back to the idea of one “screwball” bearing the weight of the entire lunacy: LeBow is basically on the phone constantly, and he’s alone save for the voice of his secretary. Think of The Producers. Max Bialystock has his Leo Bloom, his Ulla and his host of old ladies to work off of, but poor Artifex just has the phone.
About a third of the way into the evening you want someone, anyone…especially the secretary…to appear on stage to relieve the tension and give Artifex someone to play off of. It doesn’t happen, which means that LeBow, via his phone conversations (imagine Bob Newhart after consuming seven Starbuck’s Ventis), creates all of the characters. After this initial reservation, or need for other folks to be up there on the stage, is set aside (Look, no one else is going to appear. Deal with it!) LeBow’s performance is a wonder to behold.
At the end of the show I attended, after Artifex accepts the inevitable implosion of his plans yet, with his final words, holds out the possibility of still achieving the unachievable (ever the quixotic producer), the stage lights snapped off. Darkness.
When the lights came up again, LeBow was sitting at the desk, his head bowed, his hands fisted on the desktop. He bumped his hands once on the desk as if to say “Yes, I’ve done it,” then looked up at the audience, nodded, stood and came around the desk to receive well-deserved applause. Yes, he had done it – frenzied Italian truck driver, “had-it” ex-wife, dragon-lady agent, disengaged military officer, bloodthirsty Iraqi brigand and eager tyro playwright -- he had created them all…by talking on the phone.
If you care about acting, if you think there’s more to it than ripping a T-shirt and screaming “Stella,” then go see Mistakes Were Made. LeBow will show you how it’s done.
Mistakes Were Made runs through Sunday, Nov. 22. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or go to www.hartfordstage.org.
This review originally appeared in The Norwalk Citizen-News.