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Interviewing the Audience

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Zach Helm
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

It seems fair to predict that three stars of a production I recently attended will never again appear on any stage. Those gentlemen—one young, one middle-aged, one much older, respectively named Eric, Michael, and Dan—must be one of the most unusual performing trios ever to appear on a New York stage. Yet under the stewardship of Zach Helm and, after a fashion, Spalding Gray, they made for a fascinating glimpse into the way the male mind and heart evolve over the course of life. Unfortunately, because they were the targets of Helm's interrogation in Interviewing the Audience, you'll never meet them as I did. But a trek to the Vineyard Theatre on any other night might introduce you to three more people just as interesting.

Helm has based his experiment on Gray's original, even stealing the opening question he directs at each of the three people he pulls from the audience to join him in the two easy chairs onstage: "What brought you to the theater today?" The tone and content of the answer determines how the next 20 minutes or so will unfold. The interviewee may interpret the question as one about transportation, or perhaps about state of mind. Helm then gently (and sometimes not-so-gently) prods them to expand on their initial comments, slowly building a personal dramatic narrative from the concerns of that specific moment, and tying everything together before shaking hands and beginning the next interview.

But the real magic occurs as Helm uncovers and develops common threads between the interviews, which he then weaves into a single overarching story about—well, whatever's relevant. At last Sunday's matinee, the "plot" became about the choices we make (or more precisely don't make) that guide our lives along their paths. As Eric, an NYU student, explained how he stumbled into the theatre history major he's creating because one day he discovered he was already doing it; as Michael, a married gay man with two children, identified the strange but wonderful circumstances that have conspired to give him a family he never expected; and how Dan, a retired physician who's been married to the same woman for more than 50 years, has benefited from decisions and coincidences alike, it was difficult to not believe that all this had been planned in advance.

And what characters! Eric has a twin sister who left for school in Colorado just as he was coming to New York, and told a delightful story about how he tried (and failed) to maintain his dignity when slipped on some ice on the sidewalk. Michael and his husband have two children that they share with four mothers: two women who were married to each other, but then got divorced and married other women—what sensible playwright would dare make up a biography so absurd? And Dan's admissions of his love for primitive art and meeting his wife by engaging her to translate from German into English a book about bees were charming in the way that precious few theatrical speeches are today.

Because there's no way to know to whom you'll be exposed, it's possible that individual performances of Interviewing the Audience could span the gamut from sublime to excruciating. If Helm succeeds at every performance as he did at mine they'll lean more toward the former, though he's not without his own inconsistencies. He's not particularly good at filling pauses between reluctant answers and fresh questions, and the time that the cogs in his head spend clacking is essentially dead air his "costars" are not typically able to fill on their own. (Even running less than an hour, the performance I saw felt a bit inflated.) Helm also does not have Gray's scintillating, pointed personality—he comes across as more cerebral and considered than a natural communicator, which during more passive moments can veer dangerously close to dull.

But nothing was emphatically boring about Interviewing the Audience the day I saw it. By luck or by pluck, Helm created a marvelous tapestry of humanity that presented complete strangers in ways that made them feel familiar and important—and more than a little like those of us in the audience. Such a talent is not easily dismissed; nor is this show. It may have once belonged to Gray, but Helm is slowly but surely making it his own—and yours, as well, regardless of whether you end up as his next subject or are just watching the unpredictable, irreplaceable personalities he finds from the safety of your seat.

Interviewing the Audience
Through February 27
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15 Street
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