'Interviewing the Audience'

Facing a chummy opening-night audience filled with theatrical patrons and well-wishers is more of a challenge than finding rapport with a roomful of strangers.

Zach Helm credits Spalding Gray, who originated the concept of “Interviewing the Audience” 30 years ago, for inspiring his own version of that theatrical tightrope act, which he launched at Vassar College last summer. But judging from the opening night show at the Vineyard, Helm’s manner of coaxing conversation from consenting audience members seems to put him more in touch with television talk show hosts than with his role model.

To be fair, facing a chummy opening-night audience filled with theatrical patrons and well-wishers is more of a challenge than finding rapport with a roomful of strangers. And the canned question that Helm poses to each of his three audience selections — “How did you come to be at this theater this evening?” — is a lame icebreaker under any conditions, but an especially dubious choice for an opening night in-crowd.

Even allowing for all that, Helm doesn’t communicate the insatiable curiosity and the narcissistic joy that a born interviewer feels when he’s working the crowd. Although not a seasoned performer, Helm is no neophyte to the business. He has written plays (“Last Chance for a Slow Dance”), scripted movies (“Stranger than Fiction”), and is currently the a.d. of LA’s Teatro de Facto. So maybe the lack of presence he projects is just part of his laid back, self-effacing act.

Whatever inspired him to choose them, Helm lucked out with his three interview subjects: a funny, chatty professional performer who pretty much interviewed himself; a college girl tentatively exploring grown-up independence; and an extraordinarily self-possessed older man who turned out to be on the theater’s board of directors.

But in truth, Helm seemed not to know what to do with these promising subjects. He interacted best with the college girl, commiserating with her scary experience of getting lost in Chicago by sharing his own experience of being mugged in that interesting city. But many of his questions seemed arbitrary, or at least beside any apparent point, and some of them were just weird.

According to a program note, Helm has “hosted” this show, as he puts it, in other venues that he doesn’t identify. So maybe he’ll settle in here, too. But right now, it’s clear that he hasn’t got his sea legs yet.

Interviewing the Audience

Vineyard Theater; 132 seats; $50 top

Production

A Vineyard Theater presentation of a show in one act by Zach Helm, from an original concept by Spalding Gray. Creative consultant, Sarah Stern.

Creative

Set & lighting, Kevin Adams; sound, Brett Jarvis; production stage manager, Megan Smith. Opened and reviewed Feb. 10, 2011. Running time: 75 MIN.

Cast

With: Zach Helm

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