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Josh Lefkowitz in a publicity shot for Help Wanted
(Photo © Kyle Ancowitz)
Spalding Gray is Josh Lefkowitz's last great hero. One of Lefkowitz's professors had told him that, "once you turn 20, you'll have no more hero-worship; only peers." On the eve of his 20th birthday, Lefkowitz pored over Gray's published canon. The following day -- September 11, 2001 -- he left his childhood behind. In his autobiographical solo show Help Wanted, subtitled "a personal search for meaningful employment at the start of the 21st century," the now 24-year-old writer/performer presents a bittersweet coming of age tale about heroes, disappointments, and the struggle to become an artist.

More than any other figure, Gray popularized the genre of autobiographical solo performance; several of his works played on Broadway, and some were even made into films. In Lefkowitz's hommage, he recreates the prototypical Spalding Gray stage environment: a table, a chair, and a glass of water. Certain lines in the young writer's text also allude directly to Gray's writings, particularly Monster in a Box. Some of Lefkowitz's stories -- including a hilarious bit about his obsession with a particular video game -- recall Gray's technique of discussing his neuroses as commentary on his main narrative.

Still, Lefkowitz does not attempt to completely mimic Gray's writing or performance style; he has his own distinct voice and mannerisms. While Gray's performances were heavily ironic and at times cynical, Lefkowitz has a more naïve, optimistic persona. His goofy smile and infectious energy are also quite different from his hero's characteristically more subdued demeanor. (This is not to say that all of Gray's performances were low-key; I still recall the rather jarring moment in Morning, Noon and Night when he stood up from his chair and danced.)

Lefkowitz knows how to tell a story. He's both charming and funny as he relates details from his life and his struggle to make a living after graduating with a BFA in Theater. The arc of his narrative is predictable, yet it's the way he reaches his conclusions that makes Help Wanted so entertaining. He peppers his tales with genuine insights into human behavior and consistently challenges his own perceptions, prejudices, and privileges.

One of the more provocative and disturbing sequences in Help Wanted has the straight-identified Lefkowitz sitting in the sauna of a gym in Washington D.C.'s Dupont Circle, reading gay performance artist Tim Miller's autobiographical novel Shirts & Skin. "It's really the equivalent of tying a rainbow flag around my testicles," he wryly observes. Though Lefkowitz had been questioning his sexual orientation, he was unprepared for being approached by an older man with a beer belly. The incident gave him a greater appreciation for the dilemma of young women who are so often sexually harassed.

Inevitably, Lefkowitz chronicles his journey to New York to see the workshop production of what would be Spalding Gray's final performance piece, Life Interrupted. He was shocked to see his last great hero in such a debilitated state, and another shock soon followed when Lefkowitz got word of Gray's presumed suicide. (He went missing in January 2004, and his remains were found in the East River in March of that year.) Upon hearing the news, Lefkowitz was left with conflicted feelings. "Spalding Gray, on that one day, you let me down," he laments, "I didn't even know you, you owed me nothing, but you let me down." However, the young artist doesn't end his piece there; he moves towards an elegant, more hopeful conclusion.

There's no director credited for Help Wanted, but Lefkowitz is ably supported by his design team. Evan O'Brient's minimal set and more complex lighting design are perfectly calibrated to the piece, while Brandon Wolcott's sound design helps set the pace and mood. But, even without these trappings, Lefkowitz's solo performance would be captivating.

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