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Shades of Gray

Young, Neurotic Monologist Inspired By His Older, Neurotic Monologist Hero


By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 2/7/2007

Help Wanted: A Personal Search for Meaningful Employment at the Start of the 21 st Century

By Josh Lefkowitz

At Center Stage through Feb. 17

Help Wanted is self-referential in the extreme. It stars the 25-year-old Josh Lefkowitz as a monologist who sits alone at a wooden table with nothing but a glass, a pitcher, and his notes as he talks about the struggles of writer-actor Josh Lefkowitz. More specifically, he talks about his five-year quest to become a monologist like his hero Spalding Gray, who used to do his shows at a wooden table with nothing but a glass, a pitcher, and his notes.

Needless to say, Lefkowitz never matches the droll wit and world-weary irony of Gray. And that's exactly as it should be. The last thing we want from a 25-year-old is drollness and world-weariness; they're never any good at it and it's embarrassing when they try. What we want from a twentysomething are smart-alecky wisecracks, hormone-jangled jabber, and naive, irrepressible optimism. That's just what Lefkowitz delivers in this witty, jittery 75-minute monologue.

The show takes place in Center Stage's newly reconfigured Head Theater Cabaret, a long, narrow room behind the regular seating of the upstairs performance space. The audience sits at tiny cocktail tables on the floor while Lefkowitz sits on a small riser among them. He wears a plain brown T-shirt, and his dark bangs hang over his bushy eyebrows. In a high, nasal, rapid-fire voice that suggests what SpongeBob SquarePants might sound like as a graduate student, he describes his first job after earning a theater degree: an attendant at a parking garage in Ann Arbor, Mich.

He describes the job as "the lowest station on society's totem pole," though he does point out that it's one of the few jobs where you are paid to sit and read. Before the monologue is over, being a parking attendant will look pretty good as Lefkowitz describes the humiliation of being turned down for job after job. "What do you know," he was asked, "about frying chicken?" Thus the title refers to the comic frustration of an out-of-work actor seeking employment.

But the title also refers to Lefkowitz's desire for instruction from teachers and inspiration from heroes as he strives to make it in the theater. His teachers include Eric Bogosian, but his biggest hero is Gray. He reads everything Gray ever wrote, sees every movie Gray ever made, and plots how he might someday meet the famous monologist.

Lefkowitz eventually moves to Washington, D.C., to become a working actor and then an out-of-work actor. When a temp agency offers him a job at NASA wearing a spacesuit so he can have his picture taken with middle-school students, the young actor asks himself, "What would Spalding do?"

Spalding would jump at such an idiosyncratic situation, make notes on it, and turn it into an amusing anecdote for one of his monologues. So that's what Lefkowitz does. Help Wanted is filled with such anecdotes, including vignettes about the sauna at a gay gym in Dupont Circle, a bohemian Thanksgiving in Minneapolis, a disastrous audition at the Shakespeare Theatre, and hallucinations inside a parking attendant's booth.

Two things prevent the show from becoming insufferably self-absorbed. One is Lefkowitz's willingness to make himself the butt of joke after joke. As vividly as he evokes a young man's earnest idealism, he just as vividly describes how often that young man falls flat on his face. Even his delivery is a kind of joke. The words tumble out in a profusion of twitchy, high-pitched excitement until they slam into a brick wall of reality and stop. That's when Lefkowitz sips from the glass of water.

The other thing that saves the show is the growing realization that Spalding Gray, like most heroes, is not a superman with all the answers but rather a deeply flawed human being. If you know Gray's biography, you know where this is headed, and when the tragedy arrives it lands with the thud of a stone, giving this squishy memoir the weight it needs. And as much as you may have been wishing for Lefkowitz to get a grip and face up to the world as it really is, you'll regret those wishes when he finally does. For disillusionment is as unwelcome as it is inevitable, and his ache reminds us of our own.

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