Before creating New Girl, the Fox comedy starring Zooey Deschanel, Elizabeth Meriwether had already mastered the manufacture of smart, insecure female heroines. Her deep comedy The Mistakes Madeline Made, originally produced in 2006 and now in a brief revival by Tongue in Cheek, proves that point as it delves into the psyches of two fascinating women (and the men who love or hate them).
Jake Lipman plays Beth, the comically tightly-wound manager of a rich family’s household office. While trying her best to control an unbalanced and infantile employee named Wilson – absurd, but highly sympathetic as played by A.J. Heekin – Beth is also training Edna, a sarcastic new hire played by the superb and, in this role, almost magically magnetic Shelley Little.
Shelley Little and Jake Lipman in “The Mistakes Madeline Made” – Photo by Maeghan Donohue, copyright 2013
Offices don’t get much more micromanaged than this one, with Beth obsessing about purchasing sneakers for the family’s little boy and packing his daily snack. Hardly bothering to disguise her sneering attitude towards all the persnicketiness, Edna shifts periodically into memories of trying to help her mentally ill brother Buddy (Jeremy Patrick Hamilton, effectively raw in the play’s one non-comedic role), and into scenes of her encounters with a series of (again comically) stereotypical dates – the sensitive short story writer, the pseudo-streetwise rapper, etc., all played to delightful excess by Joe Mullen.
The action centers around the acutely painful plumbing of Edna’s crabbed, guilt-ridden soul, with the comedy giving way after awhile to a more dramatic and revelatory mode complete with an incipient love story. But Meriwether’s script shows a sure touch that brings us right along through the changes, and together with pitch-perfect performances and Brock H. Hill’s typically assured direction, it results in not only the best Tongue in Cheek production I’ve experienced but the best comedy I’ve seen on stage so far this year.
Within the tiny Bridge Theatre at Shetler Studios, Lipman’s set comes alive. The flashback scenes, in which the disheveled Buddy refuses to get out of the bathtub he’s moved into in Edna’s dorm, is backdropped by a design that suggests both Venetian blinds and a page out of a notebook, so that we’re always conscious of being in the writer’s world. And everyone here, except poor repressed Beth, is a writer of some kind, from Edna’s failed paramours to Wilson with his new love diary and unfinished dissertation on Leibniz. Writing about writing can be tedious, but here it’s the opposite; rather than separating intellectual-minded characters from an audience, here writing stands in for creating your own life. By the end, when Edna finally make a start on that difficult project, we are absolutely delighted for her.
The Mistakes Madeline Made runs through April 13 at Shetler Studios on W. 54 St. For times and tickets visit SmartTix or call 212-868-4444.