Theater Review: Michael Mendelson claws through ‘Mistakes Were Made,’ sharply

In Artists Repertory Theatre's production of Craig Wright's play about an almost-play, the actor shines

Michael Mendelson in Craig Wright's "Mistakes Were Made" at Artists Repertory Theatre/Owen Carey

Michael Mendelson in Craig Wright’s “Mistakes Were Made” at Artists Repertory Theatre/Owen Carey

Felix Artifex spends most of “Mistakes Were Made” at his desk facing a big aquarium that barely encompasses an orange and white koi named Denise. He wears a phone headset sometimes, but mostly he jabs at his phone and the intercom that connects him to Esther, his receptionist.

The news that lights up his phone console is not good. Sure, movie star Johnny Bledsoe is interested in committing to the French Revolution play by an unknown playwright he’s trying to launch on Broadway, but Johnny has “an idea” for the script that means junking the whole thing. And frankly, no Johnny, no Broadway. And yeah, the sheep convoy in some unnamed Middle Eastern land is on the road, part of Felix’s Byzantine funding scheme, but it’s surrounded by rebels determined to make a point. The playwright? Guess what he thinks about Johnny’s suggestions.

And Esther keeps screaming at him to stop feeding the fish.

It’s going to take some fast talking to get out of this mess with dreams, dignity and cash flow intact, and Felix, played by Michael Mendelson in Artists Repertory Theatre’s new production of Craig Wright’s play, is ready for action, in his brown suit and vest and spiffy bow tie, his little white pills, his posters of past productions on the wall (Van Damme in “Macbeth”!), and Denise, well-fed Denise, slowly testing the edges of her universe as Felix tests the edges of his.

The role tests an actor’s skills: He speed-talks boatloads of lines and assumes many attitudes and, um, positions as he attempts to get his play on the boards. He must go from pitiful begging to all-out verbal assault as the winds and the phone calls change. Mendelson is terrific at it, modulating a nasal accent and dancing an expressive choreography around that desk, twisting one way and then the other. It’s great fun to watch, a fine actor pushed by a difficult assignment.

****

Mendelson, who is the director of the production, wasn’t his own first choice to play Felix.

Todd Van Voris, an Artists Rep news release that came in earlier in the month said, had to step down from the role of Felix Artifex because of a family emergency. Because the play is the nearest thing to a one-man show you can have without actually BEING a one-man show, that sounded pretty dire. And indeed, opening night was moved back a week, the release continued.

Then the release got really interesting: The director of the production, Mendelson, who was helming his first show for the company, was going to replace Van Voris. And Mendelson was going to be directed by Damaso Rodriguez, the company’s artistic director, who would be listed as Associate Director in the program.

Mendelson replacing Van Voris? This is what causes heads to do “The Exorcist” swivel!

Van Voris is a big, avuncular figure onstage, often figuring in comic roles. He has a nice baritone, and when given the chance has shown a lot of range as an actor (the evil Cardinal in “(I AM Still) The Duchess of Malfi,” the head of a law firm in David Mamet’s “Race”), enough to imagine him as the obsessed theater producer Felix.

Mendelson, the artistic director of the Portland Shakespeare Project, has been one of the city’s leading actors since winning a Drammy Award for “Bent” in 1992. Lately, he’s specialized in humorous character roles that require a Mittel Europa/Yiddish accent, like Max in Artists Rep’s “Superior Donuts.” And he’s shown a talent for scattered, nearly hysterical roles, which makes him a natural for Felix, more than Van Voris, actually. Which is what made casting Van Voris so interesting in the first place.

Once the casting for Felix became fluid in my mind, it became difficult to dislodge. How would Van Voris intone a line like, “Thank you for being you!” And wouldn’t a woman make a good Felix (Felicity?) these days? I can think of several local actresses who could twist Felicity to their purposes.

****

Denise listens; Felix (Michael Mendelson) talks./Owen Carey

Denise listens; Felix (Michael Mendelson) talks./Owen Carey

“Mistakes Were Made” isn’t about a producer’s attempt to rope script, principals and money into a Broadway corral, while saving sheep transporters from the bad guys. That’s just the plot. And the title of the play he wants to produce, which is a joke, right? A play about the French Revolution entitled “Mistakes Were Made”?

This would be almost too obvious to mention except that New York Times drama critic Charles Isherwood found the incongruities in Wright’s construction of Felix’s imaginary world too incredible and wasn’t able to suspend disbelief. Which I found disappointing. And L.I.T.E.R.A.L. “And for that matter would this small-fry fellow really have 10 phone lines?” Weren’t there 12?

Felix isn’t a description of a theater producer trying to make one last score before he collapses in self-disgust and financial ruin. He’s just like us: Wheeling and dealing and trying to keep the details fluid enough long enough for things to fall in place.

Does Felix stretch the truth sometimes? He shoots it, mutilates it and leaves it for dead in the highway. Because the truth is in the way; because the truth is that a silly play about the French Revolution is NEVER going to see the bright lights of Broadway; because the truth is only useful as a weapon of last resort. So, Felix is, um, pragmatic. He actually believes in what he’s doing, maybe, and the ends justify the means.

There are two kinds of truth we’re talking about here. The first is his honest opinion: Felix probably doesn’t even know what his honest opinion is about anything connected to his project. His opinion is whatever will work at the moment. (Just for the record, I’m attempting to record my honest opinions here for you right now. For example, I was worried that Mendelson might turn Felix into a sort of Woody Allen nebbish going into the play, and though I had a moment of worry about it early on, my worry quickly dissipated. My honest opinion is that he avoids that resemblance. I’m in the honest opinion business, after all, though my honest opinion changes with more thought, more data, exposure to a better opinion, or a good nap.)

The second is the literal actual truth. Felix discards this as easily as he discards honest opinions. Just like his opinion, the truth is a tool. Yes, the commandos are on their way to help the sheep transport convoy. Yes, the writer is working on a new version of the script. Yes, a famous actress is lined up for an as-yet unwritten role in the play. Felix is working on a fantasy, a nice fantasy, where an unknown writer’s play gets produced and both sheep and shepherds make it to their destination. Opinions and “truths” are simply ways to make the dream come true.

****

Michael Mendelson as Felix in "Mistakes Were Made"/Owen Carey

Michael Mendelson as Felix in “Mistakes Were Made”/Owen Carey

The truth isn’t just a tool. It isn’t just a hurdle. It’s a condition (that we can offer different opinions about and variously useful descriptions of), too. Felix attempts to shape the truth into something more or less resembling his fantasies… until the fantasy simply can’t be supported any longer by a sane person. I’ve resisted calling “Mistakes Were Made” a comedy, even though Wright is a very funny writer, because Felix is headed toward that point.

Here’s my favorite line in “Mistakes Were Made”:

“No one will say, quickly and simply, just yes.”

In the audience we’re going to laugh at Felix, at his ineptitude, at his transparent flattery and outright lying, at the impossible reality he’s attempting to construct. But Wright doesn’t allow him to drift too far offshore. How many times have I sat there hoping against hope that a simple, quick “yes” would get my particular show on the stage? And I’m not even in the theater! Felix wants that simple “yes.” Someone else wants what he wants and agrees that this is the best way to get it: This is how the world is and this is how it works… and oh, by the way, you trust me to pull it off.

Is Felix going to get the “yes” he wants? That’s unlikely, isn’t it? Even he understands what a fantasy that is. But maybe he’s going to get an affirmation of some kind that he can work with, even if it’s not the big one he wanted. Maybe Wright is suggesting that affirmations like that are better than crossing off items on our stupid wish lists.

****

NOTES

Lucy Paschall plays Esther, the receptionist, with the right grating edge to her voice. And Liz Ghiz operates Denise, the fish, which was designed by Jane Clugston.

Craig Wright went to seminary and was a United Methodist pastoral intern, before breaking with the church. He was interviewed by Sojourners, a national Christian organization committed to faith in action for social justice, for the group’s website. The last sentence of this quote from the interview was in the program notes, but the whole thing is totally apt for “Mistakes Were Made”:

“There’s something essentially humorous in the fact that the universal [God, the holy] only happens in the particular,” he says. “So people can be talking about the biggest ideas in the world and still have to live in a small apartment, clean their toilets, things like that. I like to affirm that people are wrestling with these big questions in their real lives. Regular people wondering what life’s all about.”

Third Rail Repertory Theatre is the leading proponent of Wright’s plays in Portland. The company has produced “Recent Tragic Events,” “The Pavilion,” and “Grace” to excellent effect, and Wright wrote “The Gray Sisters” with and for the company. But CoHo did “The Unseen,” and now Artists Rep has jumped on board.

I linked to Isherwood’s pan of “Mistakes Were Made.” Here’s a positive review from Vulture’s Scott Brown.

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