Trading ‘Boardwalk’ for boards, Michael Shannon gives stunning soliloquy

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Michael Shannon and the fish puppet ponder showbiz. ()
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Mark Rylance is generating a lot of well-deserved attention for the astonishing 30-minute soliloquy, a stunning display of vulgar audacity, he delivers in La Bête on Broadway. Downtown, at the Barrow Street Theatre, Michael Shannon deserves similar for his own performance in Mistakes Were Made.

His extended rant doesn’t match the complexity of Rylance’s speech, which is delivered in rhymed couplets, but Shannon's performance opening night drew nearly as many laughs, at three times the length.

Shannon portrays Felix Artifex, a theatrical producer who’s trying to mount a play he says is “groundbreaking, but in a good way,” about the French Revolution. “We’re inches from Broadway with stars,” he says, and looking around his cluttered, crummy office (a great set by Tom Burch), it’s hard to tell whether this might really be his big break, or just another near-miss for someone who’s clearly seen more failure than success.

Felix’s challenge will be familiar to lots of Broadway insiders. It involves landing a big-name movie star who wants to play a part that doesn’t exist yet in the play, while coddling the playwright so he’ll change his script to accommodate the star’s egomaniacal demands. He has to juggle calls from actors, agents, business partners, and creative types, all the while hoping for a call from his estranged ex-wife, and dealing with a very serious situation involving a convoy of sheep on a “picaresque desert adventure” in Iraq that’s part of a bizarre fund-raising scheme for the show he hopes to bankroll.

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When his convoy finds itself under lethal attack by bandits, Felix has to defuse a dangerous situation across the globe while trying to get the playwright and the actor on the same page (literally!). That one question is life-or-death and the other is just money doesn’t make it any easier for Felix to prioritize his calls.

And calls are all that matters here. The entire play involves Felix alone on stage, talking on the phone, with a frenetic sense of urgency; he knows that for a producer, the only thing worse than juggling six calls at once is having no calls at all to juggle.

Mistakes Were Made is not strictly a one-man show. Mierka Girten plays Felix’s secretary Esther, who buzzes Felix every time the phone rings. Strictly a disembodied voice until the final moments of the show, Girten brings a lot of personality to a role that’s essentially reduced to a few words at a time barked into an intercom. And then there’s Denise the fish, a surprisingly expressive puppet (operated by Sam Deutsch) who acts as Felix’s unlikely silent confidante in his office aquarium. (Denise is not the only fish puppet currently on stage; The Pee-wee Herman Show has its own.)

But putting aside Esther’s interruptions and Denise’s adorable underwater routine, Mistakes Were Made is really Shannon’s solo. He modulates his mood, from shmoozy to nasty, furious to placid, depending on who’s on the other end of the line, often swinging from one pole to another with the push of a button. While Felix is an asshole—a lying, manipulative, scheming, self-interested asshole—Shannon finds just enough vulnerability and self-awareness in the character to make him a tiny bit sympathetic. No matter how much nastiness he dishes out, the audience ultimately roots for him to get his theatrical production off the ground, and that’s due to Shannon’s strange likeability, even when he’s sputtering invective and shaking with anxiety like a Broadway version of Lewis Black. He’s nasty and cutting and arrogant, but he’s also damn funny, and he isn’t afraid to make himself the punch line.

Playwright Craig Wright has a flair for naturalistic dialogue—or perhaps monologue, since we only hear one side of every conversation. But Wright would do well to heed a lesson from another show that featured only one man on stage, talking on the phone: Fully Committed, Becky Mode’s excellent play about an exasperated reservations clerk at an upscale Manhattan restaurant, which ran off-Broadway for more than two years a decade ago. Mode’s show ran a tight 75 minutes, and while it varied in pitch and intensity, it was a straightforward comedy that allowed the actor to focus, and the audience to enjoy the whole ride. The serious subplots in the 90-plus-minute Mistakes Were Made—particularly the one about the sheep—don't match the naturalism of the rest of the play or its ability to provoke an emotional response. Nor are they light-hearted enough to match the comic energy of the rest of the script. Worst of all they drag the pacing down, leaving you to imagine the crisper, funnier show, more organic and cohesive, that would have been left if he'd cut them out.

As Felix says, “Life is unbearable and short, and people want to be entertained.”