I'm sitting on an extremely uncomfortable and upright couch in the smallish Dixon Place theater on Bowery. My girlfriend, Jenn, has instantly chosen a better seat. I agree to move to the more comfortable couch. Jenn briefly entertains the idea of changing seats again, and I veto the notion. I am the theater critic, and I'm letting my girlfriend dictate our seating preference. Well, enough is enough, I say to myself. We will sit here and watch the opening night of Help Wanted: A Personal Search for Meaningful Employment at the Start of the 21st Century. I will watch it impartially and keep an open mind. And I will not allow any preconceived notions I have of Spalding Gray to inform my opinion.
Josh Lefkowitz, writer and performer of Help Wanted, has made plain his admiration for the late, great playwright in all publicity for the piece. Now, here we are on our new couch, looking at a small table bearing the weight of a tasteful tablecloth, a small bottle of water, and about 30 or so pages of unbound typing paper. These items are heavier than they seem, for they carry with them the weight of a man's life—Gray's entire career and body of work. Lefkowitz better be ready to do some heavy lifting, I think to myself.
The strength of Lefkowitz's arms is not the concern here. He hefts a very heavy text on his own and even makes note of weightlifting in the piece. The instant shock of the first several minutes of the piece is that it is performed entirely within the modus operandi established by Gray, author of such well-known monologues as Swimming to Cambodia. Is this imitation or homage? I find myself, as Lefkowitz does many times in the script, asking myself, What would Spalding do?
In Help Wanted, the author details the story of his script's creation. In the two years leading up to its writing, we follow Lefkowitz through a couple of dead-end jobs, his 20th birthday on Sept. 11, 2001, and eventually a move to Washington, D.C., that results in his first legitimate employment as a working actor. At the story's climax, Lefkowitz comes face to face with his great hero, Gray, just months before the latter's death. Lefkowitz's own story and writing evidences the strengths that he praises in his mentor's work. Help Wanted carefully skirts "the balance between specificity and universality."
As a performer, Lefkowitz crackles on every page and every line. Whether he is embodying characters (like his girlfriend, his parents, and even Gray himself) or chanting a self-composed "Geena Davis" empowerment mantra, he radiates an air of relaxation and calm, a charming eye at the center of his hurricane-like coming of age story.
While reliving the familiar college exercise of writing a research paper in an hour, Lefkowitz openly admits that academic miracles of that nature occur only through "plenty of plagiarizing." On a broader level, he is addressing the question at the forefront of any audience member's mind: Is Help Wanted a justifiable work of plagiarism? Has Lefkowitz swiped Spalding Gray's medium (just as a critic might imitate Gray's monologue style when reviewing this show) to further his own career? That's what I was thinking when I left Dixon Place at around 9:30 that night.
On the way to the 6 train, we stopped at Botanica Bar on Houston Street so I could use the bathroom. Jenn noted that my choice of restroom was funny. On many nights we have visited Botanica. In fact, Botanica is where I took Jenn to introduce her to my friends for the first time, two of whom had decided they would get married on the bench just outside. Botanica is familiar territory in the sprawling, uncharted and unnumbered streets downtown.
It was there, in a haven of comfort on Houston, that my opinion of Lefkowitz's piece cemented itself. As a first-time writer, he is testing the waters of storytelling in a familiar pool. It is clear in the text and performance of Help Wanted that Gray taught him how to swim. Based on the precision and clarity of his strokes, the strength of Lefkowitz's craft should take him to Cambodia and beyond in the years to come.