You could certainly argue that ridiculing self-help seminars is basically shooting fish in a barrel, but playwright/director David Wayne Reed has created a memorable, acerbic satire in “Help Yourself.”
Reed’s 90-minute one-act is receiving its world premiere at the Paragraph Gallery, an intimate downtown space that allows the actors to connect with viewers with one-on-one immediacy. And the actors are quite good.
Reed’s conceit is that we, the theatergoers, are attending a seminar led by self-help guru Gabe Newland (Jeff Smith), a manic flimflam man selling the concept of US, short for “understanding simplified.” Gabe’s main pitch is that until we take control of our lives we are merely “pronouns stumbling around the plot points” of our lives. And the way to take control is by “rewriting” our stories.
“Life gets exciting when you start rewriting!” he tells us.
One of the attendees is Ben Masters (Kyle Dyck), who goes to the microphone and explains — with lots of prodding from Gabe — everything that has gone wrong with his life. By his account, he has just sabotaged his job as a waiter by throwing a tantrum and storming out.
Reed soon takes us out of the seminar and shows us Ben’s backstory. He’s an alcoholic. He’s living with his girlfriend, Caroline (Stefanie Stevens), a nurse, and her mother, Honey Weathers (Teri Adams), a TV meteorologist. Ben is such a desperate screw-up that he allows Honey to buy him off if he just stays out of their lives.
But then he discovers US and turns his life around, becoming a wildly successful vitamin-supplement salesman intent on making amends.
This cast gets all the juice possible from the material. Smith is consistently fun to watch as the aggressive, blathering Gabe. Smith is a physical actor and he rarely stops moving as he hops across the stage and circulates in the audience. His Gabe is an aggressive huckster, seemingly convinced of the rightness of his “philosophy.”
Gabe doesn’t really change, but the other characters do. Adams reconfirms her status as one of the best comic actresses in town as Honey. In the early going she expresses dry disdain with feather-weight barbs. Later, after Honey goes through a professional crisis, she becomes vulnerable and just a little delusional.
Dyck negotiates Ben’s whiplash conversion from alcoholic dead-ender to glowing success story with precision. Dyck is always an interesting presence on stage, and here he creates a memorable character with Reed’s thoughtful writing. The tall and willowy Stevens has charisma to spare and is impressive in a role that doesn’t have many obvious laugh lines but requires dramatic depth.
Reed’s storyline gets a bit diffuse, transporting us to various locations through a hop-scotch narrative thread, but at the end he brings us back to the seminar, where Gabe, the messianic overlord, remains firmly in control. Along the way, while poking fun at the self-help movement, Reed’s play considers legitimate questions about the struggle for identity in the modern world.
The minimal physical production requires little more than a sofa and a microphone, but overall the show is crisply visual, thanks in large part to John Kimball’s lighting and video projections by Steve Gardels (who also designed sound).
To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to email@example.com.
“Help Yourself” runs through Feb. 2 at the Paragraph Gallery, 23 E. 12th St. Tickets are available at BrownPaperTickets.com.