Help Me Help Myself Needs Some Help
Imagine this: a play about the trials and tribulations of trying to succeed in New York City. A play about how to make it through each day, not necessarily always with a smile on your face, with the knowledge that things are bound to get better and that all these "character building" experiences will play a vital role in who you ultimately are. Imagine that! Now there's a storyline I've never heard before!
Ask any artist - writer, actor, painter, musician or otherwise – and you'll hear the same tale. You'll hear that if you experience things with a different set of eyes, it will enhance your work as an artist. Every experience, from the most simple to the most profound, matters and is another collective ingredient to be used in their craft. So, it is this tried and true tale that makes Help Me Help Myself: The New York Guide to Love, Fame, Fortune and Everything You've Ever Dreamt of in 30 Days or Less, appealing. The commonality of it pulls at a certain heart string because we all can relate to life in the big city.
However, the fact that the play is written by Jenna Bans, a current story editor on ABC's mega hit Desperate Housewives, also makes the show appealing. I can appreciate and admit that I fell into the publicity trap of her status on the show and was up to seeing some of her work "pre-Housewives'" notoriety, even though my heart will always belong to The Simpsons and Family Guy on Sunday nights. Yet with all the hype the Desperate Housewives connection brings, I must say that I was not blown away by Help Me Help Myself; in fact, I actually was slightly disappointed. I was initially encouraged by a theme which is so close to those who are watching it and expected a slightly more "out of the box" approach, only to have the play be cut short to its overwhelming potential. Whether Help Me Help Myself had a somewhat notable name attached to it or not, I still believe that the play fell flat when it could have been lauded for a new spin on an old theme.
What Help Me Help Myself Did Wrong:
Storylines Don't Match Up:
Claire (Marina Kotovnikov) is the main character who successfully fights with her over analyzing mind while struggling to find inspiration to write when she has grown up in complete normality.
Her story of soul searching lands her into a chance meeting with Becky (Julie Tortorici), an old dance school classmate who recommends a book called "Help Me Help Myself" as the best route to clarity. However, when Claire obediently searches for the book as told, she finds that it doesn't exist.
This storyline proceeds simultaneously as a relationship between Sarah (Jessica Arinella) and Ben (Matthew G. Rashid) develops. The plotline of Sarah and Ben never converge with that of Claire. This is odd until you discover at the play's conclusion that they are really just two actors out of a screenplay Claire has successfully written. At this point, you are glad to realize the twist since you have been wondering all along what either storyline had to do with each other. While this creative writing almost takes Help Me Help Myself to a new level, it instead opens a floodgate of unanswered questions for the audience to ponder.
Was Becky real? Since Becky never entered into the plot of Sarah and Ben, it is easy to assume that she was. If she wasn't real, Claire would have spoken to no one to give her any advice; all of her non stop talk of why she can't stand being so normal would have been for naught. All of Claire's scenarios were presumed to be real; it wouldn't make sense for Claire's struggles to only be something she made up in her head like she did with the characters of Sarah and Ben. Logic says that the only way for there to be a storyline is for Claire's situations to actually be occurring. However, if this is the case, why didn't she find Becky's recommended book? It wasn't that the book was out of stock, the book didn't even exist.
Maybe this was the point of the play – to leave the audience discussing and grappling with what was real and what wasn't. If it was, it's a cute idea, but I ended up feeling cheated as I left the theater. Not everything always has to end nicely tied up with a big red bow on top, but plays need to ultimately make sense and leave us questioning ideas that don't necessarily have to have answers. Help Me Help Myself does not do this but rather leaves the audience wondering "did I understand that correctly?"
What Help Me Help Myself Did Right:
The Use of Pop Culture
One of the bonuses to this play is the incorporation of sound effects and props that are reflective of today's enviroment to enhance the script and, in most cases, the comedic value of the scene.
Sarah and Ben, originally meet in a subway station. Although the set is far from intricate, one sign is posted in the background which reads, "If You See Something, Say Something." It is a simple yet effective and is truly a reflection of today's urban American society.
In another scene, after Sarah reveals to Ben that she is a "make-up artist for the dead," she brings Ben to see some of her work. As the preceding scene fades out, the funeral home scene is ushered in with the opening theme of Six Feet Under. Again, this is a simple, subtle touch that added so much depth and comedic value to a very awkward scene. The only eyebrow I raise to this use of pop culture is the absence of Sex and the City. What better show to use about trying to succeed in New York; about struggling over relationships both external and internal? Claire yearns to be a writer (Carrie Bradshaw anyone?) and Jessica Arinella, who conveniently plays the role of "Sarah," could serve as Sarah Jessica Parker's stunt double any day of the week. It would have been fun to see what might have developed out of that idea.
The Situational Comedy Element
If continuity is not a strong point for Bans in Help Me Help Myself, the comedic element is. The situations the characters find themselves in are so odd and over the top that you can't help but enjoy yourself. Sarah, after she begrudgingly accepts the offer to have coffee with Ben at Starbucks, gets burned in the eye with latte steam when she obnoxiously peered around the coffee counter. Her eye is now sensitive to light which forces her to wear a pirate eye patch throughout the rest of the play. You never realize how hysterical this is until someone is trying to have a serious conversation with another individual donned in nautical gear.
In another series of scenes, Claire continues to run into a quiet and mysterious young man (Joffre Myers). At a restaurant, bookstore and yoga studio, he pops up claiming that he "goes where he is needed." After the first few times this happens, you find yourself looking forward to seeing this mysterious man appear where ever Claire goes and you enjoy the concept since it is so far from reality. Whether he is ultimately there to be Claire's muse (which doesn't make complete sense because he ends up being Ben's roommate, therefore making him part of Claire's written scenes, not a real one) or not, these unrealistic chance meetings provide some well needed humor.
Help Me Help Myself comes so close to being a hidden gem of the Off Broadway stage. However, despite the humorous aspects the play contains, it can not overshadow the confusing writing. Who knows, maybe I just interpreted it completely wrong, but even after revisiting the play in my mind a few days later, it still didn't add up. Some tighter writing would be the perfect additive to shine up this play into the true jewel that it could and was meant to be.
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