There are two plays—Other Desert Cities at the Newhouse Theater, and Mistakes Were Made at the Barrow Street Theater—which both coincidentally close on 27 February Sunday that are worthy of your attention.  The only other thing they have in common, by the way, is the fact that they both have great acting.


Nancy, my mother, and I saw Craig Wright’s comedy Mistakes Were Made at the Barrow Street Theater last evening.  You definitely should go to see this during the two and a half weeks it is still in New York—not because it is such a great play, but because of Michael Shannon, whose acting is worth far more than the price of admission.  Shannon, whom you may know from his work in film and television (although, I must confess, I had never even heard of him—despite the fact that his first film role was a small part in Groundhog Day), plays the role of Felix Artifex, a desperate Broadway producer who is trying to cobble together actors, a theater, and funding to stage a play by an unknown writer about the French Revolution—entitled, of course, “Mistakes Were Made.”


Mistakes Were Made is essentially a one-man show—save for the almost-completely offstage vocal presence of Felix’s secretary, Ester (Mierka Girten), and the constantly onstage silent presence of Denise, his pet fish (brought to life by puppeteer Sam Deutsch); and Shannon gives what is simply tour-de-force performance that rockets the audience forward through the often-hilarious, always enjoyable 95 madcap minutes of the play.  Felix is constantly and intensely in dialogue with countless counterparts on the other end of multiple telephone conversations, all of which we know only from hearing Felix’s end.  He carries the play, as he is carrying the project, as he is carrying each of the multiple interactions on the phone.


The situations are amusingly bizarre:  Felix is trying to secure the participation in the play of a young, mindless movie star, who wants a special role written into the French Revolution for himself—a young, though, side-kick for Robespierre; Felix is trying to convince the playwright to agree to completely rewriting his play to accommodate the inane demands of the actor; at the same time Felix is trying to finagle financing for the venture, in part through a scheme that is going seriously awry involving transporting sheep for dipping in some unsettled Middle Eastern county, where terrorists with flame throwers are becoming part of the transaction; in the meantime, Felix is also attempting to reconnect with his ex-wife.  And all of these things—and more—are coming together at the same time in explosive and wrenching ways.  Felix’s “dialogues” are often hilariously funny—and the writing is often extremely witty.  (I particularly liked his contention that, “Details should be considered a gateway drug.”)  But sometimes it is just the sheer absurdity that successfully drives the comic effect:  Felix’s often repeated assertion that a producer is someone who altruistically “tries to do what’s right for other people”; or his devolving to a repeated set response to the author’s agent Helen (in a conference call with the actor and the author, put together by Helen), in which his only words—or screams—to the agent are, “Fuck you, Helen!”  But it all works, carried comically forward by Michael Shannon’s energy and skill.


In truth, it is not a great play; but it is a fun play.  It was ably directed by Dexter Bullard, and it is powerfully and effectively staged.  Mistakes Were Made is not an extremely deep play; but it is not a shallow play, either.  I was concerned from early in the performance about where the whole thing could possibly go; and, of course, that was ultimately a problem.  But Craig Wright did a pretty reasonable job of coming up with something that was pretty good, even there.  Do not go to this show expecting profound meaning—or even deep insight into the human condition (although there are some mild pretensions in these directions).  But, if your expectations are not too high, you will find for yourself a deeply enjoyable evening of theater that is not without its insights into humanity—and certainly not without its trenchant insight into the theater world.  But, most importantly, you will discover a huge stage talent in Michael Shannon.  (I have no idea why, but this lovely little production was itself produced by some extremely high rollers—not least among which are Jean Doumanian and The Weinstein Company.  I must say, I’m curious; so please let me know if you have any background insight to provide.)


Tickets ($69) are available through  SmartTix (or call 212.868.4444), or by visiting the Barrow Street Theatre Box Office (open at 1PM daily).  (Be aware that there are really excellent Premium seats that are available at $95, and they are well worth the premium.) Student Rush tickets (at $20, cash only) can be purchased in person, at the box office, on day of the performance, in person at the box office beginning at 1PM, subject to availability.  The Barrow Street Theater is at 27 Barrow Street, just off Seventh Avenue, just south of Christopher Street.  And there are tickets available…so go see it!


Meanwhile, it is basically not possible to get tickets for the remaining performances of Lincoln Center Theater’s production of Other Desert Cities at the Newhouse Theater, which is the main reason I did not write it up after Nancy and I saw it a week ago, and why I am not going to say that much about it now.  I thought that Jon Robin Baitz’s play itself, for all its extreme pretensions, was relatively shallow, and it did not work all that well for me.  (Once again, I find myself in diametrical disagreement with Ben Brantley’s review in the NY Times!  Damn, do I find him reliable…in a perverse way.)  Unlike Mr. Shannon, most of the actors in Other Desert Cities were all people I did know:  Stockard Channing, Stacy Keach, and Linda Lavin are extremely fine actors—and, as in the other play, the acting in Other Desert Cities really is extremely good.  Elizabeth Marvel and Thomas Sadoski, the two younger actors whom I did not know, also did very creditable jobs in their roles.  Other Desert Cities definitely is worth seeing, even if only for the excellence of its acting.  Nevertheless, I’m not going to spend time describing much more, because you’re not going to get to see it, in any event.


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