The first time I went to see Help Yourself, winner of the Fringe’s 2012 New Play Contest, I obtained a ticket to Kat Sandler’s acidic and mischievous comedy about people behaving badly, and justifying it, but the venue oversold and, there being no seat, I had to leave. Getting so close to the buzzed-about experience was maddening. I’m very glad that I tried again and was successful, because Help Yourself is one of my favourite plays at this year’s Fringe, a professional production with a dark, fast-paced script that would not be out of place as part of one of this city’s major theatres’ seasons.
Donny (Daniel Pagett) is a “fixer,” a highly-paid personal consultant who solves his clients’ personal problems in an hour by giving them a little “push” in the direction they wish to go. He is, essentially, a professional justifier; he convinces people to convince themselves that their desires are okay to act on, even if those desires include murder, and sends them off to perform the act. Donny seems to have convinced himself of these notions, but less thrilled about the whole thing is his girlfriend Samantha (Tosha Doiron), who is trying to convince him to give it up. Donny’s 10am is Ted (Tim Walker), who wants to kill his wife for cheating on him. An intense discussion of and battle about morals ensues, interspersed with flashbacks through Donny and Samantha’s relationship.
The acting is uniformly excellent, the actors having perfected the banter. Walker is great as a man gradually becoming more and more unhinged, and Pagett charms as the guy who knows everything until he doesn’t. Pagett and Doiron have strong chemistry and their exchanges make them seem very well-matched, each giving as good as he or she gets, shifting the power balance between them.
Sandler excels in writing the push and pull of power in relationships, and examining how people build arguments. Though Donny appears to have the upper hand in his meeting with Ted, it is refreshing that Ted is not solely the naïve rube in the transaction; not as slow as he seems, he often effectively refutes Donny’s points and strategies. The play is very well-constructed, with all early allusions paying off in explosive and somewhat surprising ways (though nothing you can’t see coming if you think about it). In a way, Donny is always trying to convince himself; it’s like Donny and Ted are two halves of the same person. They have much in common, like the fact that neither finished college and both are defensive about it. It’s like Donny is the person Ted wishes he were, too good (or bad) to be true – or that Ted is the person Donny really is, deep inside (conspiracy theory alert!) This is possibly why the banter works as well as it does. The set is simple but sleek, which reflects the professionalism of the entire production.
I would not be surprised if Help Yourself helps itself to a slot in a regular theatre season. It’s funny, well-made and just transgressive enough in its theme to do so. And, despite what Donny might say, I’m not going to take revenge or assert my dominance over the volunteers who originally oversold me my seat. That, Donny, would be wrong.