At the Theater: ‘Interviewing the Audience’ Gives Banality a Bad Name

interviewingaudience381 At the Theater: Interviewing the Audience Gives Banality a Bad NameWhen you arrive to see a play called Interviewing the Audience, you expect that there will be something metaphoric or something ironic, something somehow deep and significant buried in that straightforward titular gerund. You expect that you will see something insightful and revealing, something that asks some questions of theatergoers and transforms their responses with performative alchemy.

What you do not expect–and yet what is delivered by Zach Helm, who is performing Interviewing the Audience at the Vineyard Theatre in a production that opened Thursday–is exactly what the title promises and no more: an hour or so spent watching a not very probing questioner superficially interview a few not very interesting audience members about the not very compelling details of their quotidian lives.

Mr. Helm is a performer, director, playwright and screenwriter. His Interviewing the Audience is credited as “originally created by Spalding Gray,” and indeed the late monologist first performed it in the early 1980s, circulating among theatergoers, selecting a few who seemed likely to be interesting to join him onstage, and asking them deep, probing questions.

Mr. Gray was bracingly intelligent, wryly funny and intriguingly dark, with an uncanny eye for the right interviewee and the revelatory inquiry, and by all accounts his interviews were riveting. Mr. Helm is none of the above, and the same goes for the performance.

He drills into the banal aspects of subject’s lives–asking one woman, the eldest of 21 cousins, to recite all their names (he thinks it’ll be poetic, he says). But he misses potentially fascinating wrinkles: When that same woman mentions that her youngest sister had a different childhood than she did, because their father had become more successful, Mr. Helm chooses not to explore the impact on a young girl of that transition into wealth.

Mr. Helm has the bad habit of delivering a platitudinous observation with the rococo windup and measured delivery of an oracular pronouncement. This gives him the unctuous manner of a solicitous but overtrained waiter.

One point Mr. Helm returns to is that because the performance is built around a trio of audience members, it is unique, unrepeatable. This is true, and a potentially intriguing observation. But because the show is so dull, it’s largely irrelevant. But it leaves a margin of hope that perhaps an occasional thrilling moment will accidentally appear.

It happened once on the night I attended, while Mr. Helm was questioning an Upper East Side matron who mentioned that she and her husband can pass an entire car ride to Martha’s Vineyard without speaking, sitting in companionable silence. (Goyisheh kop!) Mr. Helm asked the theater to sit in silence for a few long moments.

It was unexpected, weird and curiously compelling, a reminder that beauty can arise from the banal. It would have been better had Mr. Helm not sat there looking quite so impressed with himself.

The spectral WASP-y paterfamilias who haunts A.R. Gurney’s slim but delightful new comedy, Black Tie, which opened last week in a Primary Stages production at 59E59 Theaters, would hate its title. A man who insists on the term “evening clothes” rather than “tuxedo” and “trousers” instead of “pants,” he’d no doubt have an objection to “black tie” as an insufficiently formal sobriquet for formal wear. But he’d also eventually accommodate himself to it.

Mr. Gurney has offered a hopeful Episcopalian cri de coeur, in which dead, proper grandfather visits conflicted father on the day modern, multiculti grandson is about to be married to a mixed-race bride with Croatian adoptive parents. Grandpa is at first aghast, and Dad lost, but eventually they acclimate. The wedding goes off happily–and tieless.

If the plot becomes predictable and some of the characterizations stock, the one-liners in Black Tie are very funny and its emotional terrain real. The performances, directed by Mark Lamos, are excellent, especially the deliciously Buckleyian Daniel Davis as the unnamed grandfather.

Mr. Gurney’s message is clear: The old regime is falling, but there’s no reason to be ill-humored–or, worse, ill-mannered–about it.

editorial@observer.com