Hearing just one side of a telephone call can be funny. Bob Newhart launched a career doing so, and no one’s done it better. That includes the harried New York producer Felix Artifex of Craig Wright’s essentially one-man show Mistakes Were Made. The thrust of the labored 90-minute comedy is Artifex’s hapless attempt to close the deal on a new, aspiring Broadway show, an unlikely tale of the French Revolution titled “Mistakes Were Made.” In between popping fortifying (or stultifying?) pills or bemoaning life’s injustices to his tropical fish Denise, poor Felix is on the phone with – to name a few -- the big star he wants (and needs) to sign up, the playwright who refuses to alter his script to land that big star, and the shady characters from long distance who are mired in a sheep-dipping operation manufactured to finance the production. The phone calls come fast and furious and simultaneously, pushing the producer ever closer to a precipice of considerable mental and physical proportions.
Phil Johnson tackles Felix Artifex in Cygnet Theatre’s West Coast premiere of Mistakes Were Made, and his sheer endurance is laudable. His only support on stage is the mostly off-camera Jacque Wilke (underutilized) as the producer’s secretary, Esther. A puppeteer manipulates Denise the fish, who in this theatrical whirlwind of one-way conversations and exasperation comes to be the only character worth truly caring about.
But what matters here? That Artifex could stage his big production, the first that isn’t shlock? That his ex-wife might finally return his calls? Mattering wouldn’t be such a big deal if Mistakes Were Made was funnier. Its laughs are sporadic, in spite of Johnson’s annoyed or desperate facial expressions and a few sight gags.
If only Esther could pop into the office now and again and disrupt his calls in person instead of off-stage. If only one snippet of phone conversation was as wacko as the poster hanging on the office wall for a production of Man of La Mancha starring Erik Estrada.
If only Bob Newhart, phone in hand, could come to the rescue.
Theater insiders no doubt will appreciate the maddening struggles of Felix Artifex. The rest of us wonder why he doesn’t just use his answering machine.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.