As I was winding the run of two shows, PERICLES and RUINED, at The Black Rep, my gaze turned outwards to see what else was happening. I’d been aware of Craig Wright’s MISTAKES WERE MADE, playing off Broadway with Michael Shannon, but had been too preoccupied to take a close look. But I noticed that it was just about to close, so pursued the script, and found not only was it available for production, but when I read it, found that it was a hilarious, insightful, sometimes poignant portrait of a scheming Broadway producer at the height of his game. I shared the script in an admittedly desultory reading with Sarah (I was a bit hung over from the long haul of the previous months), but Sarah saw through me to the script,and we were on it. Rehearsals started methodically, and there was true joy and excitement as we started to build the blocks of this show. We needed a theatrical space, and after some dancing with cabaret producer Jim Dolan, he did help us secure the Studio space at The Kranzberg. Resources were added. Stage managers and techs from St. Louis U and The Black Rep came aboard, and significantly, Emily Piro joined the cast as the producer’s assistant, Esther. In the script and the off Broadway show, Esther was just a voice on an intercom, only appearing during the touching final scene of the show. But we made a smart decision to make her more a part of the show, offstage at her desk, but visible throughout the show, and carrying off the delicate balancing act of being present in the moment, but not distracting from the producer’s manic monologues. Emily handled this beautifully, and was a tremendous asset to the show, not only with hard, hard work to manage the phones meticulously, but also as a second human on stage, relieving the audience of the burden of always watching me, but also helping the actor in the handful of times when the narrative of the script escaped him. Sarah Whitney provided her usual impeccable directorial skills, and helped flesh out the script and characters to the max.Reception to the show, critical and popular, was very strong. A broad mix of audience types made for many near sold out performances, and their laughter proved the effectiveness of the script and the results of our labor. One of our favorite audiences included the couple visiting St. Louis from Florida who caught a story about the play in the paper, and decided to give it a try. Sarah caught them on the sidewalk after the show, and they were very glad they came. The audience didn’t include many representatives of the burgeoning St. Louis theatre community. Even though I felt this show was written for them, even though it was as St. Louis premiere, even though it received great PR and better reviews, even though there was very little theatre going on at the time, even though every artistic director in town received a free invite, and even though I tried to semi-embarrass them by offering a “Show People” discount, St. Louis theatre types managed to close their eyes, put their hands over their ears, and repeat to themselves, “daddy loves mommy daddy loves mommy daddy loves mommy.” I used to think it was me. But it’s a sad commentary on the state of what should be questing, curious, so-called artistic minds. Just more of the demons that bedeviled poor Felix Artifex in the vastly entertaining MISTAKES WERE MADE.
Actor Joe Hanrahan, artistic director of the Midnight Company, has worked with many troupes around town. But on his own, he really likes to be on his own.
Written by Craig Wright and ably directed by Sarah Whitney, "Mistakes Were Made" isn't quite a one-man show. But it's close enough to suit Hanrahan's taste for plays that allow him to revel in offbeat characters - a taste that his audience has cultivated as well.
Like an old Bob Newhart schtick, "Mistakes Were Made" employs one side of phone conversations to comic effect. Hanrahan plays Broadway producer Felix Artifex, a man trying to mount a (deeply misguided) production of a play about the French Revolution that's also called "Mistakes Were Made."
Felix might be just the guy for this enterprise: As a poster over his desk reminds us, he's the man who brought us "‘Long Day's Journey Into Night' On Ice." (Yes, this gag comes straight from "The Producers." It still cracks me up.) But this time, he's in over his shaggy head.
For some 70 minutes, Hanrahan strikes all possible human moods: cajoling a movie star who might sign on if the play is just completely rewritten, coaxing and threatening the author, flattering the British director, insulting a demanding agent, unburdening himself to a goldfish - and in the meantime, trying to negotiate an uprising in the Middle East, one that unfortunately involves the money he's invested in his would-be production.
With the "help" of a secretary (the deft Emily Piro) and a multiline telephone, Hanrahan serves up a portrait of a very frustrated man with no apparent emotional center of his own. He's a chameleon, turning himself into whatever he thinks he needs to be at any given moment. Alas, some of his guesses are wrong.
Wright is a very funny writer, packing the play with jokes that will especially appeal to anyone connected, however remotely, with show business. Toward the end, though, he has trouble extricating Felix from his complicated situation (exactly the problem Mel Brooks ran into in "The Producers"). Wright goes soft, settling for a tacked-on, sentimental resolution. Well, mistakes are always going to be made.
St. Louis Eats and Drinks With Joe and Ann Pollack
Joe Hanrahan is a man of considerable talent, enough to carry a piece of rather lightweight fluff like "Mistakes Were Made," a long way. In what is basically a one-man show, Hanrahan finds the charm and humor, and the pain, too, in juggling 10 telephone lines while trying to produce a Broadway hit. The play, a Midnight Company production, opened last night at the Kranzberg Theatre and will run through Sept. 3.
Of course, Hanrahan is the founder and artistic director of Midnight, so he is in a position to pick his plays. And he doesn't have to audition, either. Craig Wright's comedy had its premiere in Chicago not quite two years ago, and ran in New York last fall.
With a lot of help from Emily Piro as Esther, an overworked secretary/telephone operator who has a small but vital part and shows an exquisite sense of timing, Hanrahan portrays Felix Artifex, a smarmy producer, desperate to get a break and make it into the big time. He has a script called "Mistakes Were Made," about the French revolution, by an unknown writer. He has a theater, and some money, and he thinks that if he can cast a Hollywood star named Johnny Bledsoe in the lead, his worries will be over. He has 10 phone lines and a lot of people trying to talk to him.
Bledsoe, for example, wants to change his role of King Louis (Artifex cannot remember his number) to be sort of a sidekick to Robespierre. The playwright resists. So does the playwright's agent. Artifex also has invested in some sheep, somewhere in the Middle East, and has a Belgian woman running that part of the operation, but not very well. He's trying to contract for some security forces, and he's being bothered by a lot of people. And he's trying to contact his ex-wife, with some sort of absurd hope that they can get back together.
We all know people who eat when they are nervous or under stress. Artifex, when nervous, feeds a goldfish named Denise, hiding this fact from Esther as if he were a little boy trying to snare an extra cookie.
Sarah Whitney's direction is first-rate, and there are a lot of good gags along the way. Three of the best are waiting on stage -- a poster of William Shatner as King Lear, another of Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan in "My Fair Lady," and a third announcing "A Long Day's Journey Into Night-- on Ice." They put the audience in a good mood even before Hanrahan takes us into a funny fantasy land, which is exactly what the theater is.
Felix Artifex (brought to full, shabby life by Joe Hanrahan) is a New York producer and assembler of second-rate dreams who is responsible for putting B-list actors in C-list productions. As evidence of this, one poster on the set proclaimed, "William Shatner in LEAR with Pauly Shore as his fool." He does this with a tortured finesse that is part huckster and part paternal grace.
Mistakes Were Made is the vehicle that is going to change all that for Felix. It is the play with big concepts about subject matter (The French Revolution) that Felix does not understand, yet sees as a ticket away from schlock and an opportunity to show his estranged ex-wife that he has acknowledged and changed his ways. But, like his loose grasp of the play, Felix proves time and again that his ability to make things happen often ignores the more human needs we all have. Even his last name, bestowed upon him by Craig Wright, the play's author, is an ancient Latin word with the double meaning of artist and craftsman: art versus commerce.
During the tightly woven, intermission-less 90 minutes of the Midnight Company's production, we watch Felix as he tries to pull together the pieces that will make this play happen, win back his ex-wife and save the lives of drivers transporting a thousand goats to a dipping facility in the Middle East. He does this using a phone with ten lines or more (at least that is where I lost count). For nearly the entirety of the play, Felix works the phone like a wizard juggling directors, pampered movie stars, the play's tortured writer, the goat transporters, various well-armed rebels threatening the goat transporters, and the mercenaries who are supposed to be saving them.
It seems that all of humanity is on the rolodex of Felix's unflappable assistant, Esther (played by Emily Piro), who seems both Artifex's enabler and foil.The only person she seems to be unable to connect him to is the person he truly wants: Felix's estranged ex-wife, Dolores. Despite all the verbal acrobatics he goes through to bring off the new production, this "mistake" is the one Felix would truly like to fix. Mistakes Were Made, which was directed by The Midnight Company's Associate Director Sarah Whitney, moves at a fast pace as we watch Felix's dreams of bringing the play to the stage, reuniting with Dolores, and fixing the goat situation in the Middle East all come to disaster.
None of the complicated and often hilarious scenarios could have possibly come together without the talents of Joe Hanrahan, who works the phone and the imaginary conversations with a depth that makes the far-fetched setup appear quite believable. And while Felix is perhaps unethical, bossy, and far too willing to sacrifice art for commerce, Hanrahan never lets the audience forget the humanity and loss the man is harboring deep inside. Joe Hanrahan appears regularly on various stages around St. Louis, and visually he often looks very similar: a middle-aged, going-to-seed guy with disheveled hair and glasses balanced precariously on his nose. But, as with many great character actors, he seems to inhabit his characters as if they have lived inside him for many years. In Mistakes Were Made, Hanrahan brings to life a souless man who will say and do anything to get his shows onstage—but what Mistakes Were Made reveals is that line between art and commerce and how painfully sharp it can be.
This was our first visit to see a show at the Krazberg Center, which is in the beautifully reimagined Woolworth in Grand Center. It shares building space with the Boys and Girls Club and the Craft Alliance. My only complaint about this addition to local theater venues is that they should not sell potato chips to the audience (or allow them into the theater). It was as if the couple in the second row snacking on chips was vying for attention with the rebels in the Middle East...and he was winning.
The classic German legend of Faust gets an interesting re-imagining with playwright Mickle Maher's An Apology for the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on this His Final Evening. This is an hour spent in the company of a very regretful Doctor John Faustus, along with his ever present servant of the past twenty-four years, Mephistopheles. The Midnight Company has crafted an engaging and intriguing production of this play that's driven by a splendid performance by Joe Hanrahan.
Basically, Faustus has traveled through time to offer an apology to us for not leaving something tangible behind that might properly account for the events that have transpired over the past twenty-four years of his life. Instead, he's left a diary filled with hatch marks, the kind that prisoners might make on a wall to mark the passage of time. But, Faustus isn't even using them for that purpose, it's merely an attempt to thwart the devil from perusing his private thoughts, since he has apparently been doing just that since this pact began. And so, he's here, in our time, to offer some semblance of explanation for his actions, although his past remembrances have all become a blurry haze to him now.
Joe Hanrahan inhabits the part in a way that really brings the character of Faustus to life. There's something compelling and mesmerizing about the way he pulls you in, making you hang on his every word of dialogue, while nervously glancing at his watch to see how much time he has left on this mortal coil. Travis Hanrahan also does effective work as Mephistopheles, wearing an expressionless white mask that only allows him to communicate through his eyes and body language.
Director Sarah Whitney gracefully guides these actors through their paces, maintaining interest in what could easily become a rather tedious or static affair. But that fact that it isn't, and that it lingers in your memory long after you've left the space is certainly a worthy accomplishment.
Devin C. Baker
Greetings once again, my beloved theatricons! Feels like donkey's years since we've chatted. So, whatcha been doin'? Kids back to the ol' backpack grind, are they? Swell. I seem to recall that last we spoke I was totting on about some grand production or other—musical, was it? Well, buddy, this ain't that! No, indeed, The Midnight Company's current production of Craig Wright's Mistakes Were Made, directed by Sarah Whitney, is, for all practical intents, a one-man show, though if we're going to get all pedantic and specific about the whole thing, there's a woman in it, too. And a largely inanimate goldfish. Oh, and it's pretty funny. You still like funny, right?
Craig Wright's play about a frenzied and frazzled Broadway producer debuted in Chicago a few years back, and had a decently received New York run—in both cases, the inimitable Michael Shannon played Felix Artifex, the beleaguered lead. Felix is hard-up for a hit and believes he has all the right fish sniffing his tackle, if he can just cajole them into the project. The Midwestern family-man playwright with the French Revolution epic and the big-screen star with “script ideas” just need the right stroking and hand-holding and the show's a go. He's willing to skirt the truth, obfuscate and outright lie to playwright, stars, agent, whomever.
Meanwhile he pines for his lost love Dolores, overfeeds his goldfish, Denise, and monitors the direr-by-the-minute fate of a few thousand sheep in an unspecified Middle-Eastern desert who have had the misfortune of becoming entangled in a scheme to generate revenue for the production in question. This last sub-plot has him dealing variously with Italian shepherds, terrorists and a representative of a Blackwater-esque mercenary group. The narrative develops through a conceit that made Bob Newhart famous (but was used equally by a pre-”no respect” Rodney Dangerfield and later a young Ellen Degeneres), the one-sided phone call. If you're thinking that mightn't be enough to hang an hour-and-a-half on, you're not off base.
While Wright's knack for surprising comic turns of phrase (“details are a gateway drug!”) keeps the entertainment level steady, the story he develops via Felix's phone system instills mostly curiosity, while not a preponderance of care. Mistakes often feels like a one-act that's been blown up with a tire-pump. There's a ton of great stuff for a skilled actor to chew on, and it's a slick slice-of-life snapshot strewn with theater-world allusions and gags, but there's not enough story to carry it through. Throw in a tacked-on ending and you have an often very entertaining but ultimately less-than-compelling play. These, of course, amount to a critique of Wright's work, but what of Midnight's production? With one or two lags and glitches, they've put together a very amusing, moving and memorable show.
You've no doubt seen or heard the term “an actor's actor” bandied about by critics, though no one ever seems to break down what it is they mean by it—we're just supposed to know. For me an “actor's actor” isn't just good, but intentionally good. Well, what does that mean? Their success on stage derives from choices, insight, design and experience, and that work and preparation comes through in their performance. These are the actors from whom other actors hope to steal. I mean folks like Joe Hanrahan, this show's Felix Artifex, and the co-founder/artistic director of The Midnight Company. This is his showpiece, and he rides it for all its worth, from harried exhortations of his would-be star, to fever-pitched spitballing with his playwright, to poignant introspection and resignation, this is Hanrahan's baby all the way.
The pacing could be a bit more brisk in the beginning, when Wright's script is just broad-brushing Felix for us, and I wondered why his opening conversation was so static—center-stage, delivered in three-quarter profile with scarce movement. (I was put in mind of that overused TV commercial technique we all found so disconcerting in the Michelle Bachmann video a while back.) As the stakes get higher, however, Hanrahan really fires on all cylinders in his manic, Ahab-ian pursuit of “Mistakes Were Made,” the play which consumes his efforts. A favorite bit of mine is the little fist-pump with which Hanrahan punctuates the play's name with its every utterance—the fist is there whether Felix is leading the charge or nearing defeat, its forcefulness a barometer of our poor producer's plight. I could parse the performance for every laugh-line and wistful aside, but there'd be no point. Joe Hanrahan is an actor's actor, and he nails this character to the wall. That he somehow manages to do it twice a night on Saturdays is nothing short of miraculous.
I mentioned earlier that there is another flesh-and-blood character in this show. Please do not mistake my not having mentioned Esther yet as any sort of commentary on the performance of Emily Piro—it's a should be taken as commentary on Craig Wright's script. Esther is Felix Artifex's secretary. Here's the deal with Esther: she's a tool. Not like your brother-in-law Brody is a tool, but like she's a device. She's how Wright deals with the problem of letting us know to whom Felix is currently speaking. And that he's not supposed to be compulsively feeding the goldfish. Some productions have her exist as a disembodied voice in an intercom, simply because the script doesn't endow her with much in the way of humanity. Piro does a splendid job in a thankless role, and actually got Hanrahan back on track opening night when he jumped the gun on a line, calmly suggesting the name of the person he ought to have asked her to contact on the phone. Cucumber cool, I thought.
Mistakes Were Made is evidence that a great show doesn't have to derive from a perfect piece of writing. Craig Wright is certainly an exceptionally gifted writer, don't get me wrong, and has the list of accolades and credits to prove it. This play, however, demands a skilled actor to do the heavy lifting, giving him a jumble of wacky situations and circumstances, peppering these liberally with some legitimately brilliant and memorable chunks of phraseology, but insisting that this actor somehow herd these cats successfully for ninety minutes. Joe Hanrahan carries it off with charm and zeal in a performance you really owe it to yourself to check out.
By Steve Allen
Joe Hanrahan is ably assisted by Emily Piro, but it’s really a one-man show as Mr. Hanrahan rant for 90 minutes as theatrical producer Felix Artifex. I’m not sure at what point playwright Craig Wright decided to call the play “Mistakes Were Made,” but it fits in nicely with an unexpected ending that uses a theatrical contrivance to wrap it all up.
You’re not really sure what direction the play is taking as a desk, a fish tank and an old multiple line phone with a really long cord become the props for this producer to rage, sweet talk and cajole a line-up that includes the playwright, a Hollywood leading man, a leading lady of the theatre and even a terrorist in an effort to produce an epic theatrical piece. The play, based on the French Revolution, goes through a series of possible re-writes when the leading man doesn’t want to play the king but would rather be “the kid.”
Hilarious one-sided conversations take place as Joe Hanrahan- a master of the frazzled, high strung business man- tries to calm everyone down and to deal with a sheep-herder that he has invested in to help fund his play. The Middle-Eastern country where the sheep are being herded becomes the focus of a terrorist group and this just adds to the non-stop phone conversations and the resulting ridiculous situations.
Emily Piro is the competent secretary positioned just stage left of the action and becomes the catalyst for the barrage of phone calls that makes Felix push button after button in an effort to placate the actor and actress, smooth the ruffled feathers of the playwright and persuade the terrorists to let his sheep continue their journey.
Sarah Whitney has directed with a good sense of the strength of her lead as Joe Hanrahan leads us on this wild and wooly journey to the contrived yet satisfying conclusion. Join this unusual play with another classic character brought to life by the incredible Joe Hanrahan. “Mistakes Were Made” plays through September 3rd. Call 314-487-5305 for tickets or more information.
St. Louis Stage Capsules
by Dennis Brown
Mistakes Were Made Set in the office (and mostly on the phone) of fast-talking theater producer Felix Artifex (Joe Hanrahan), this breezy spoof takes aim at the wreckage that occurs when art and commerce collide. As Felix strives to open an ambitious new play about the French Revolution on Broadway, he relies on phone calls to keep the deal alive in the same way that trauma victims are sustained by transfusions. Hanrahan blasts and barrels his way through a bravura performance. But before it's over, you might wonder if playwright Craig Wright needed quite so many words to lampoon the art of the deal. Performed by the Midnight Company through September 3 at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand Boulevard.
By Dennis Brown
"Here's the deal," fast-talking theater producer Felix Artifex intones into a phone as he attempts to persuade a cocky movie star to act in an ambitious new Broadway play about the French Revolution. For the next 90 minutes, Mistakes Were Made (which is also the title of Artifex's production) revels in the art of the deal. This typically irreverent offering from the Midnight Company is a breezy spoof about the wreckage that occurs when art and commerce collide.
As he strives to assemble his Revolutionary package, Felix depends on phone calls to keep the deal alive in the same way trauma victims are sustained by transfusions. But because Felix must navigate a slippery world where no one will simply say yes, he resorts to a twisted kind of doublespeak. "You can't tell a thing is doomed until you try it," he insists with the kind of perverse logic that once motivated George Armstrong Custer. As Felix attempts to cajole and placate actors, directors, playwrights, agents and theater landlords, Mistakes Were Made settles into a groove so surreal that it doesn't even seem wrong when Felix's only confidante turns out to be a goldfish named Denise.
It does, though, seem slightly self-serving that in this intermissionless marathon by Craig Wright, the sole uncorrupted presence (goldfish aside) is the playwright. Wright might have made a more persuasive case for his lofty profession had he written a tighter script. (The subplot about Felix's venture into sheep dipping as a financial investment enhances the evening not at all.) There's no question that Joe Hanrahan delivers a gung-ho performance as the harried producer. But the play feels so overwritten that by evening's end, Hanrahan's bravura has as much to do with endurance and memorization as with the nuances of portrayal.
Hanrahan receives charming support from Emily Piro as his vigilant secretary, Esther. As fresh as the flower in her hair, Esther personifies the naiveté Felix doubtless felt for theater back when he was a neophyte.
Although there are only two actors onstage, the play (directed by Sarah Whitney) receives additional support from a poster on the office wall that promotes one of Felix's earlier productions. The poster simply states: SHATNER – LEAR. William Shatner's Mona Lisa stare peers down on Felix's desperate monologues as a sorry reminder of theater gone wrong. But Shatner's impassive gaze — indeed, his very career — also reminds us that theater practitioners are blessed with more lives than the proverbial cat. If Mistakes Were Made fails to open on Broadway, not to worry. A musical version of To Kill a Mockingbird with Miley Cyrus as Scout Finch is waiting in the wings.
Story: Felix Artifex is in his element: He’s wheeling and dealing from his tiny producer’s office in New York City, attempting to pull together the celebrity talent that will make his project, Mistakes Were Made, the toast of Broadway. As Felix describes it, the show is a drama about the French Revolution, and if he can entice hot Hollywood star Johnny Bledsoe to take a lead role, Felix could finally hit the big time. Unfortunately, Johnny wants the script by the novice playwright rewritten to allow him to be the star as some “kid” who hangs with Robespierre, or “Pierre” as the history-challenged Felix prefers.
So, Felix spends his afternoon on myriad phone calls sent to him by his ever-patient secretary, Esther, making one outrageous lie and promise after another, juggling egos of actors, agents and writers while simultaneously dealing with a bizarre hostage situation somewhere in the Middle East precipitated by one of his wacky business ventures. He also anxiously awaits a return call from his ex-wife. Oh, and Felix has this penchant for feeding a solitary fish in his office aquarium, against the admonition of Esther and the advice of the fish expert, as a type of therapy to soothe his jangled nerves.
Highlights: Written by Craig Wright, a member of the Chicago-based Red Orchid Theatre ensemble and a noted playwright and screenwriter for assorted TV series, this one-act comedy seems at times like a 21st century version of one of Bob Newhart’s legendary Button-Down Mind monologues. Newhart made his reputation with one-way telephone conversations, such as Abner Doubleday trying to explain his new game of baseball to a skeptical listener, and Wright’s frenzied producer Felix is much the same.
Midnight Company co-founder and artistic director Joe Hanrahan is adept at commanding a stage with his presence through a variety of one-man shows that allow him to adroitly delve into a character. Here, he’s joined by Emily Piro as Felix’s faithful Girl Friday, as they struggle to elevate this one-joke work above its natural milieu.
Other Info: While fitfully funny in spots as Felix walks a tightrope of machinations, Mistakes Were Made makes for a rather long evening despite its 90-minute running time. Problems are plentiful. For starters, Piro has little to do other than periodically announce another in an endless string of phone callers for her beleaguered boss. He’s mysteriously popular for a guy who works out of such a shabby office, as defined by Robert Van Dillen’s effective set that consists of Felix’s work area in the center, offset by Esther’s desk at stage left and a tiny aquarium perched atop some file cabinets at the other end. There also are some humorous posters from Felix’s career, including William Shatner in the title role of King Lear and Long Day’s Journey into Night…On Ice!
Really, the role of Esther could easily be eliminated, with just her voice over an intercom announcing the next caller. Piro adds dollops of humor with her wry and knowing grins, but essentially Hanrahan has all the playing cards in this deck as the scheming producer. Hanrahan expands the part of Felix with some surprisingly poignant moments, whether on the phone entreating his ex-wife for one more chance or speaking his thoughts out loud to his beloved fish as he contemplates the slings and arrows of the human race.
Director Sarah Whitney, Midnight Company’s associate director, is our tour guide for this looping if wearying bit of lunacy. After a while, though, some of us would just like to exit the bus and let Felix untangle his overly complicated web by himself, with predictable results.
Revised: October, 2007
© The Midnight Company