I’ll be seeing a lot of plays at the Fringe this year, so I’ve decided to blog about at least some of them — mostly for my own benefit, to sort out my reactions more or less immediately, and to keep a record of what I saw and what I thought. These won’t be reviews in any real sense; I’m not planning to offer detailed plot summaries, and I will give away endings. So spoiler alerts are in effect throughout these posts.

My Fringe began today with Kat Sandler’s Help Yourself, the winner of this year’s New Play Contest — a three-hander starring Tosha Doiron, Daniel Pagett, and Tim Walker. The play’s central figure, almost never allowed off stage, is Donny (Pagett), a self-styled “consultant” who offers, for a very generous fee, to persuade his clients of the moral legitimacy of whatever they desire to do; Donny’s job essentially is to be the Id’s spokesperson, undermining whatever social or philosophical obstacles might stand in his client’s way. Most of the play is made up of Donny’s session with Ted (Walker), a hapless, sagging, balding, defeated-by-life cuckold in baggy chinos. Intercut with the scenes of Ted and Donny’s 60-minute meeting, represented more or less in real time, are scenes between Donny and his girlfriend Samantha (Doiron), revealing the history of their relationship in chronologically reverse order.

So far, so relatively spoiler-free. But here goes.

Ted’s secret desire is to kill his wife, who’s been cheating on him. Donny’s job, therefore, a job he tackles with gusto, is to persuade Ted that this is not only a justifiable action but in fact a positively good idea. He forces Ted to reveal more and more about past dark impulses, constructs all sorts of elaborate arguments that support the uxoricide (including a fairly hilarious utilitarian justification that depends on the greater risk of killing others should Ted attempt suicide instead), and gets his client vomitously drunk.

This is all well and good — the pacing of the script is excellent, Ted’s efforts to hang on to a notion of his own decency are beautifully rendered by Walker (at one point Donny provokes him so much that Ted smashes a bottle over his head, and Walker’s reaction was just brilliant, a subtle, hilarious, and moving expression of shock at his own violence), and Pagett, though a little too prone to shout whenever he wants to suggest intensity, and not always in full control of the text, has tons of energy and is charismatic enough to create a convincing modern version of the medieval vice figure. Philosophically, the conflict is not especially profound, but theatrically, it works — Donny’s sheer outrageousness, Ted’s horrified reactions and gradual conversion, all of that is effective. I’m not sure, though, exactly what point is being made in all of this. Sandler claims in an interview that “Donny lets us explore all these clever grey areas in the choices we make,” but I don’t really think that’s especially apposite: murder sits pretty squarely outside any grey area I’m aware of.

More importantly, and problematically, the play wants more of its characters than this. Donny, for one thing, is not allowed to remain a vice — he turns out to be a human being, with problems, insecurities, and hang-ups of his own. And those complicate things in ways that the play doesn’t really resolve or explore in any depth. They inform some of Donny and Ted’s exchanges, but are most on view in the scenes with Samantha, where Donny emerges as jealous, secretive, ingratiating, uncertain (even though he can read her like a book — or so he says). The problem with all of this, for me, was that I wasn’t sure what those scenes were supposed to do: Samantha remained a bit too two-dimensional to justify their existence, and Donny seemed more and more hypocritical in the “session” scenes the more his own issues became apparent in the other scenes. But that — the therapist in need of therapy — is surely a trope that ran out of steam some time ago.

Ultimately, the play agrees, and so the subplot becomes part of the main plot: Donny, it turns out, has, unbeknownst to him, been sleeping with Ted’s wife. (In a weird way, this is a twist that’s almost unavoidable, given the disparity between the two narratives — they don’t comment on each other, so they have to be brought together on the level of the plot: Samantha has to be Ted’s wife, because otherwise the two plot lines won’t intersect….) As this realization dawns first on Ted, then on us, then on Donny, we might expect an interesting twist — perhaps a turn from the abstract and general to the personal in Donny’s own philosophical arguments; but instead, Sandler opts for a quick out: Samantha interrupts the counselling session, and Ted shoots her with a gun Donny supplied to him.

This seemed like a pretty significant cop out to me. The play’s not exactly short, at over 80 minutes, but the two plot lines and, more problematically, their resolution left both the story and the characters feeling unfinished. The question the play spends so much time on (“Is it OK to kill your wife?”) is kind of obviously not the interesting one to ask. But the much more intriguing conflict that briefly becomes possible at the end — what happens if the abstract position Donny holds has actual consequences for him? — is left almost completely unexplored. Given Sandler’s apparent interest in Donny as a complex character, rather than as a modern vice figure, this decision is especially puzzling. In a way, the play might have been much more compelling if the big, shocking revelation had occurred half-way through, forcing Donny to pivot into an effort to now persuade Ted not to kill his wife, or his wife and her lover. Instead, he’s left holding Samantha’s corpse, in largely mute horror.

Perhaps the fact that the play has made me write almost a thousand words should count in its favour. At least it’s thought-provoking, right? But I’m not really sure that’s true either, since the thoughts it provoked were mostly of the “why didn’t they do more of this” or “why didn’t they go there” than of the “huh, what an interesting, disturbing question” variety. Help Yourself is polished and fast — it often didn’t feel like a Fringe production at all — and frequently very funny. But it leaves untapped much of the potential it undoubtedly has. I’m glad I saw it, and I would encourage everyone else to see it, too (it’s entertaining if nothing else, and Walker’s performance in particular is truly delightful). But I think there’s quite a bit of work still to be done.

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