David Wayne Reed gives his characters and his audience a hand in Help Yourself
Do you like your story? Do you want to change the narrative of your life?
These are a couple of questions directed at the audience early in Help Yourself, David Wayne Reed's original 90-minute one-act, now being staged at Paragraph Gallery.
Wait ... gallery? It may seem an unusual venue for a play, but it's an intimate and fitting spot for Reed's show, which he also directs. Selected by the Charlotte Street Foundation last summer from its open call for artists, Help Yourself is deserving of the foundation's nod. Reed here stands out in a city that teems with local playwrights, and his sharply written and witty script pulls you in like the best of the self-actualizing seminars that he satirizes.
Sitting in the small, stark-white storefront just steps from 12th Street, in rows of chairs facing a platform and three TV monitors on an opposite wall, we spectators might just be registered at one of those workshops. (We've even received name tags upon arrival.)
When we meet Gabe Newland (Jeff Smith), this seminar's energetic, outgoing facilitator, he wants to know: Do you want to change the ending to your story?"Life gets exciting when you start rewriting," he claims. The character is a caricature, sure, but a recognizable one.
He's talking to us. Or is he? That initial fourth-wall piercing might be off-putting, but it engages, in an uncomfortable way. (The hardest part of change, after all, is resisting, Gabe reminds us.) Are we members of an audience or unwitting participants? It feels a little forced, at first, but the play quickly finds its rhythm. Reed cleverly and surreptitiously blurs boundaries throughout the show (aided by John Kimball's lighting design), and his skillful composition and well-cast production make for an unusual — and entertaining — experience.
Reed's show-slash-seminar takes its inspiration from the human-potential movement that spanned a couple of decades. Erhard Seminars Training (est), which began running weekend workshops in the 1970s and later evolved into Landmark Education — "Create a future of your own design," Landmark's website reads — may be the best-known. Today's est site claims: "Werner Erhard and the est Training brought to the forefront the ideas of transformation, personal responsibility, accountability, and possibility ... and over a million people 'Got it.'"
Reed gets it with his farcical take on those inhabiting that world, and with his rendition of those seminars' goals, lingo, leaders and aftereffects. In this case, it's US, or Understanding Simplified.
Gabe insightfully homes in on characters' vulnerabilities like the therapist he isn't. Up first for his personal inquisition is Ben Masters (Kyle Dyck), who has hit rock bottom. He and his live-in girlfriend, Caroline Weathers (Stefanie Stevens), have had a falling-out, and as he tells Gabe and us about it, the scene shifts to that recent New Year's Eve. Into that fray enters Caroline's mother, a TV meteorologist with the name Honey Weathers (Teri Adams). Perhaps more comical than Reed's riff on that wordplay is the subtle comedy found in a woman repeatedly addressed as "honey."
Dyck is superb here as a hapless waiter with issues. Having recently portrayed Danny in Danny & the Deep Blue Sea, at the Buffalo Room, Dyck again gives an authentic and adept leading performance. In a sort of encore, he teams up in Help with Stevens, who was strong opposite him in Danny but comes off too one-note here (which may have contributed to my ultimate confusion about her character's arc in this story).
The accomplished Teri Adams seems to ease in and out of scenes. Her Honey is a pleasure to watch and is both very funny and surprisingly touching. Smith's commanding Gabe struts the line between menacing and charismatic, and he's sometimes both.
The past and present shift throughout the course of this show, which moves forward chronologically over several months of these characters' lives (a timeline assisted by Steve Gardels' video projections). We watch the exhilarating effects of personal transformation, and the subsequent need to share that experience.
I couldn't help but think of a friend, years ago, who met a Scientology proselytizer on the street of another city. That person — a sweet, sensitive type — took the barker's bait and underwent a personality test. He didn't join up but left in tears, crushed by the detailed summary of his faults and failings.
By the time we leave Help Yourself, we've reflected on the questions rhetorically posed, which Reed's characters must answer. While these interactions may get to you, they leave you not in tears but smiling wide. Like a Venn diagram, Reed's permeable barrier between audience and presenters amuses as it holds you, and the ideas posed have a tendency to linger — and maybe follow you home.