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Loving the Volcano

A Red Orchid Theatre's Mistakes Were Made, a play about a play that’s really about theater for theater’s sake

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If you know Craig Wright's name it's most likely because you've run across it in the credits for Six Feet Under, Lost, Brothers & Sisters, or Dirty Sexy Money—he wrote and produced for all four TV shows and created the last. Michael Shannon you're more likely to recognize on the street; his performance in the film version of Revolutionary Road got him nominated for best supporting actor at the Oscars. Both men have succeeded in electronic media, but both have also been attentive to Mother Theater, coming back to visit her regularly even though they could be doing other, more lucrative things. And they often visit together: in 2006 and again the following year, for instance, Shannon appeared in successive Wright plays, Grace and Lady, both directed by Dexter Bullard at Northlight Theatre.

This time around they're at tiny A Red Orchid Theatre, where Shannon's an ensemble member, doing a play about doing a play—or about trying to get one done, anyway. Where the previous Wright-Shannon-Bullard collaborations paid tribute by implication ("look where we are!"), this one, Mistakes Were Made, is an undisguised love letter to the living stage. But a complicated, crucially flawed one.

Felix Artifex—the name means "happy artist" in Latin, and it's no end of ironic—is a producer who works out of a shabby New York office where the decor includes a framed headshot of Larry Hagman, the chairs are piled high with scripts (Felix keeps dumping them off so he can sit down), and lunch comes wrapped in silver foil out of a brown paper bag. During his downtime, Felix lectures and compulsively overfeeds an enormous goldfish named Denise. There's not much of that today, though: he's furiously, ferociously working the phone, attempting to put together a package that will result in a Broadway run for a new script about the French Revolution by a midwestern playwright named Stephen Nelson. The title: "Mistakes Were Made."

With a cast of 50 and some scenes that sound less than scintillating—such as the one where the revolutionaries rename the months of the year—Nelson's "Mistakes Were Made" is hardly a surefire hit. And yet Felix has made it the basket for every one of the few eggs he's got left, including his already cracked self-respect. As the guy who cast Suzanne Somers as Medea, he's got crimes to answer for, and Nelson's play has the high-minded, foolhardy purity he needs to wipe the slate clean.

And things are looking up, sort of. Felix has managed to reserve a Broadway house, he's negotiating for a hot movie star to put on the marquee, and if a certain Middle Eastern sheep-dipping operation comes through as planned, he'll have all the backing he needs.

Still, every action has its equal and opposite reaction—sew up something here and something's sure to come unraveled there. Offered the role of Louis XVI, the movie star, Johnny Bledsoe, wheedles Felix for script changes that snowball into a demand for an entirely new main character and story. Which riles Nelson, who sics his jugular-slashing agent on Felix. But if Bledsoe doesn't sign on, Wasserman, the guy with the theater, may drop "Mistakes Were Made" from his calendar. Meanwhile, the sheep-dipping project threatens to mushroom into a full-blown military situation.

At a certain level, Wright's play is a harsh, smart satire on the forces that make it an act of Sisyphean futility to try and put a new play on Broadway. But at another level, the level of the love letter, it's a perverse, weirdly lyrical ode to the sort of person nuts enough to make the effort. In 2006, when Wright did Grace here, I interviewed him for the Tribune, and he recalled a sermon he'd delivered (he was a divinity student in another life) in which he discussed a pair of French volcanologists who told an interviewer they wanted to die riding a flow of lava down a mountain. "The interviewer asked why," Wright told me, "and the answer was, 'We just love volcanoes.' And what I was saying was if you're going to love God, essentially you're loving a volcano. You're loving something that's immensely powerful and that sprays out beauty and horror almost indiscriminately. Fresh destruction is always just around the corner. You have to be able to say, 'Yeah, I love it. I'm just glad to be here. And when I go I hope I go down riding a lava flow.'" Substitute theater for God and you've got something approximating Felix's feeling for the form; substitute Felix for God and you've got something approximating his negotiating style.

Felix is a marvelous creation. He'll say anything to get this play produced, because getting it—getting something—done constitutes his entire sense of the purpose of life. As he says to one of his many, many interlocutors, "You can't tell it's doomed until you do it."

This isn't to say Felix lacks self-awareness. On the contrary, he's a kind of messy Manhattan Zen master. His sly, often hilarious epigrams have a ruefulness to them that carries them close to the tragic. His compulsions, oddly, are part of his worldview. And Shannon gives them the respect they deserve. Playing well above his age, Shannon mutters and squints and comes close to shuffling now and then, but never falls into caricature. In a situation where the tiniest hint of an eye roll, the least molecule of detachment, would kill the performance—which is to say, the whole show, since Shannon's onstage alone for most of its 105 minutes, while Mierka Girten, as his secretary, continually buzzes him from the next room—Shannon maintains complete solidarity with his character. He knows that Felix's office is a world, and getting "Mistakes Were Made" onstage is life or death, and he lets us know it too.

Which is why Wright is wrong to pull us away from the burning issue at hand by giving Felix a domestic catastrophe to deal with. Clearly he wants to humanize Felix by showing us another level of suffering. But the actual effect is to flatten him out. Oh, we're invited to think, so that's what's making him so intense. That's why this deal means so much to him. It's just displaced pain. Case closed. Felix would be much more interesting, more various, more mysterious, more real if he were allowed simply to love the volcano.

Related Film

Revolutionary Road

Official Site: www.revolutionaryroadmovie.com

Director: Sam Mendes

Writer: Justin Haythe and Richard Yates

Producer: John N. Hart, Scott Rudin, Sam Mendes and Bobby Cohen

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Michael Shannon, Kathryn Hahn, David Harbour, Kathy Bates, Ty Simpkins, Zoe Kazan, David Harbour and Ryan Simpkins

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