At every performance of Interviewing the Audience (Vineyard Theatre), Zach Helm summons three randomly chosen people onstage, one for each of the 60-minute show’s segments. I couldn’t help wondering if any of his interviewees had ever, in the course of their public chat, asked him for a date. I certainly thought about doing so: Helm, a suave, smiley, easy-on-the-eyes stringbean of a guy, seems just the kind of person to make you feel at ease in any situation, however intimate.
His show’s format comes from one invented by the late Spalding Gray, but it’s hard for me to imagine Gray, a somber, rebarbative personality whose inner torments are now tragically public knowledge, getting his subjects to pour out so readily. (I never saw him at work in this particular form.) No doubt Helm, too, has his dark side. An only child, he openly confesses his envy of guests who talk of large, close-knit families, as one did the night I attended. (Another provoked outright awe by describing how his pet-hating mother had nonetheless allowed him to raise a succession of iguanas.)
Helm’s easy openness at confessing what he feels to be his own limitations, like his unconcealed fascination with other people’s lives, is a significant part of his sunny charm—significantly different, too, from the dark chronicle of doubts and sufferings that was so much a part of Gray’s solo works. And Helm’s charm is, literally, all that the show has to offer, apart from two chairs, a clip-on microphone, and whatever inner aspect of themselves his chosen guests elect to reveal as he quizzes them, gently leading them backward from how they got to the theater to what they care to share about their upbringing, their families, their childhood experiences, or their life in general.
Helm, more like a knowing interviewer than a talk-show host, shares as well, maintaining a distance that is discreet but never aloof, so that each interview has the effect of a social conversation. His simple idea is that arousing the audience’s interest in folk from among their own ranks will renew their sense of their own humanity. At the end, making an unhasty exit, he turns the evening back to his onlookers, urging everyone to stay and talk. Most don’t, perhaps because, as a theater event, Interviewing the Audience doesn’t supply much to discuss. But its feel-good agenda poses a gratifying challenge, a sweet solo siege against the electronic walls behind which we increasingly barricade ourselves.