Mistakes Were Made at Stages: A Comedic Tour de Force

The setup:

In Mistakes Were Made, virtually a one-man show, a stage producer with few resources except nerve and verbosity tries to put together a B'way version of the French Revolution, in a comedic tour de force starring local actor David Matranga.

The execution:

The title of this play is the same as that of the proposed B'way spectacular, and the chance of pulling off this longshot is enhanced by an expression of interest from a hot actor -- but the actor first wants more lines, then decides he wants to play a different part, one requiring major rewriting. The playwright balks, and the powers of persuasion of the would-be producer Felix Artifex (David Matranga) are called into play.

Felix is not only willing to shade the truth, he is utterly willing to smother it, but the unstated running joke is that Felix is largely inarticulate. He is verbose but not glib, anxious but not persuasive, eager to deceive but void of invention, almost destitute of vocabulary, in short, a boy trying to fill a man's shoes. And this, as portrayed by David Matranga, is charm itself. The result is a far richer characterization than is to be found in other plays on comparable themes.

It permits us to root for the success of chicanery, to identify with this antihero, subsisting on pills and energy drinks, who has the enthusiasm and rich body language of a teenager. The mood swings are extreme -- the office is wrecked in one tantrum -- while the doting on a Koi fish named Denise -- his only confidante -- shows that a sort of manic love is not beyond Felix. The physical humor carries the comedy past the shoals of a less-than-perfect script into the safe harbor of hilarity. There are subplots in addition to the French Revolution epic, and they occupy time, but not our hearts -- though they do answer the need for incessant telephone calls from a myriad of sources, to establish the frenetic pace the script requires.

It is Matranga's charisma, his exuberant acting-out of strong emotions, that is so refreshing. Playwright Craig Wright has not given us the witty artifice of Wilde, nor the gritty realism of Mamet, nor the character-driven humor of Chekhov, but instead provides the scaffolding for a comedic romp in a sandbox, and it works beautifully. Matranga bounces around the stage like a rubber ball, moves with the grace of a dancer, and matches his gestures to words and action with a flawless precision that makes for riveting comedy. The director John Moletress of course is the architect of this performance -- Moletress has the courage to take risks and Matranga the talent to pull them off, and the result is "comedy tonight!"

Robin van Zandt plays Felix's secretary Esther, located in an anteroom and seen only briefly, but heard more often, and she adds some effective humor. Jordan Bigler as assistant director also gets to be the unseen puppeteer for the Koi fish -- it's a full life.

The set by Jodi Bobrovsky creates with authenticity the lived-in look of an office built around a telephone, rather than one where clients would be welcomed. And the sole window lets us see the weather changes that coincide with the play, a delightful touch that goes beyond the expected. The lighting by John Smetak works well and is flexible enough to add interesting support to a poignant ending.

The verdict:

Brilliant acting and direction make the most of an amusing script, and create 90 minutes of compelling light-hearted comedy to be savored for its freshness and originality.

Mistakes Were Made continues through February 19 at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. For information or tickets, please call 713-527-0123 or email: [email protected].

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Jim Tommaney