The Midtown International Theatre Festival
His name may be spelled "Martin," but it’s properly said "Mar-TAN," all you folks in flyover country. And while you're learning your pronunciation, you really ought to acquiesce to this most genial and caring of souls, who wants nothing more than to help you unlock your inner "marvelosity." Why should you listen to him? He hosts his own TV talk show — what more reason do you need? Okay, okay, and he once babysat those darling daughters of Barack and Michelle Obama, Sarah and Myra. He said so himself, so he has to be genuine, right?
The most marvelous part of Martin Joseph's play What Makes You Think I Want to Talk to You?, now playing at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, is that Martin (played by Joseph) is both so sincere and so conceited. You truly believe that this aspiring Oprah Winfrey–Montel Williams–Dr. Phil wants to "help" you — or at least that he believes he does — and that his procession of increasingly self-concerned guests is his way of demonstrating you how much he cares. Even though, always lingering about him, is the air that this man isn’t who he claims to be, or who he thinks you want him to be — and it’s become almost impossible for him to tell the difference.
That minuscule detail provides just enough extra edge to prevent this (more or less) real time “taping” of one of Martin’s episodes from being just another acting showcase. Most of the show consists of Martin interviewing (with the help of projected video) four hopeless, pointless souls (which Joseph of course also plays) a skeevy yet stylish celebutante, a painfully introspective boy, a marketing-minded pop superstar, and an ancient man with an opinion on everything, only to learn that they can’t — or won’t — tell him anything he doesn’t already know.
For the rejection-prone Martin (the play’s title comes from what a woman once said to him in a bar), this turn of events gets progressively more devastating. But the story is much more distinctive when psychoanalyzing the screwed-up Martin than when letting Joseph play dress-up: He vanishes into the roles completely, but watching him argue vague points for minutes on end with a video version of Martin grows tedious rapidly. Seeing how Martin deals with his own imploding TV show, his audience, and his sidekick Scotty (played with nerdy aplomb by Verlon Brown) is a far more insightful vivisection of the celebrity entitlement mindset.
Handsomely evoking a younger brother’s charm, Joseph adopts a thick geniality that does not hide the anger and pain just below Martin’s wistfully smiling façade. As his world crumbles, whether during those interviews or in several additional harried backstage videos, the show most worth watching is the one unfolding inside Martin’s head. As he tries — and frequently fails — to make connections in a cold world, Martin reveals himself as that most fascinating and infuriating of celebrities: the kind that demands public approval but refuses to work to earn it. It could employ more finesse, but What Makes You Think I Want to Talk to You? Successfully proves that merely talking the talk isn't any kind of marvelous at all.
What Makes You Think I Want to Talk to You?