The movie star wants a complete rewrite. The playwright thinks the French Revolution is just fine like it is. The sheep have been kidnapped by terrorists. The fish is looking dangerously obese. And, worse still, the ex-wife won't return calls.
Keeping all these potentially explosive balls in the air in Mistakes Were Made, the comedy which opened Saturday at Circle Theatre, is Felix Artifex (Steven Pounders), a New York theatrical producer with grand ambitions and more problems than an algebra book.
This hilarious, two-actor show belongs entirely to Pounders. He bounces around the stage like a middleweight fighter in the bout of his life, taking jabs and crosses from the speakerphone where we hear the ever-patient voice of his receptionist Esther (Lana K. Hoover, who is heard throughout but seen only briefly) explaining that the movie star is on Line 1, the writer is on Line 2, his agent is on Line 3 and the guy who is trying to truck the sheep across some distant, war-torn desert is on Lines 4, 5 and 6.
But his ex, Dolores, isn't willing to be put on hold.
These are the labors-of-Hercules-like obstacles that Artifex must overcome to get his dream show, a sprawling Broadway dazzler about the French Revolution, into production. The big name from Hollywood wants a new character. The proud playwright does not want to play along. The costume designer is demanding a "go" or "no go." The sheep, which are part of an investment Artifex has made to raise funds for the production, do not look as if they are going to make it to market as planned. And since Dolores is no help at all, the only living thing who will listen to him without snapping back is Denise, the fish that Artifex loves to overfeed.
Pounders does an amazing job of carrying the whole load as he shifts from one absurd phone conversation to the next. Pleading, cajoling and cursing his callers, he plays a telephone like Van Cliburn plays a piano. And, in a touch that recalls one of Bob New-hart's most famous talents, we hear only Artifex's side of the call, since he wears a Bluetooth. So he does not have the help of another actor or, usually, even another voice, from which to play off.
Initially, this is a bit annoying. You feel that the opening scenes would be better if we could see that actor or agent sitting across the desk from Artifex. But as the show wears on, you realize how important it is that we not see any of those other people. This is all about Artifex, and the structure of the show keeps us firmly fixed on his point of view.
Pounders also earns points for a small detail of his portrayal. His understated New York accent is credible, consistent and never lapses into caricature.
Hoover, who is heard so much more than she is seen, is also quite good. Her accent is a bit of an exaggeration, but it makes her character vivid even before she briefly appears.
Director Harry Parker is extremely artful in maintaining the proper pace and moving Pounders around the office set. The actor is almost constantly in motion, but nothing ever feels contrived or forced. As a result, this single-act show's 95 minutes fly by.
There are a few question marks in the script by Craig Wright. There is a vague allusion to something major that may have happened after the breakup with Dolores that could be more clearly stated. Plus, the whole thing with the sheep may seem too far-fetched (and, ultimately, too dark) even for a no-holds-barred comedy. But, then again, the owner of the Boston Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees in order to raise money to back Broadway shows. Thus proving that, in the world of theatrical finance, anything can happen.
On the whole, this 2009 comedy is a scream of a script and a tour de force of a performance. One measure of this show's abundance of quality and energy is that, when you leave the theater, you are likely to feel exhausted by what you have just witnessed in this relatively short show.
When you realize that, just think how Pounders must feel.