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Success, in a field as dicey as the theater, has got to be a good thing, no? Maybe. But if you’re a storyteller with a one-man show about, well, your attempts to establish yourself as a storyteller with a one-man show, good reviews and sellout houses and out-of-town bookings apparently have a way of making you worry: “What’s next?”
Or, in the case of Josh Lefkowitz, Now What? That’s the title of Lefkowitz’s latest solo confessional, a thoroughly entertaining chronicle of agents and creative angst, a girlfriend and a relationship crisis or two—all bobbing messily in the wake of Help Wanted, which became the breakout hit of the inaugural Capital Fringe festival last year.
That first excursion into the Land of Josh involved an account of our hero’s exciting job as a parking attendant; a teasing detour involving the assumptions some Dupont Circle denizens make about soft-spoken, theatrically inclined young men; a certain quantity of self-implicating anecdotage on the general theme of actorish hubris (complete with a quasi-suicidal frontal assault on the offices of the Shakespeare Theatre); and a good deal of hero worship centered on the late monologuist Spalding Gray. It should have been insufferable; it was, as it turned out, irresistible, a smart and sharply faceted demonstration of both writerly and performative skill. Critics, including this one, made the happy, singularly self-satisfied noises that typically attend what we like to think of as a discovery, and Lefkowitz found himself invited back to Washington for a return engagement last fall.
This new show picks up not long after the first one left off—though there are concise and cogent flashbacks, never fear, for newcomers—with Lefkowitz and his actress girlfriend happily ensconced in a Brooklyn flat and a tidy pile of Help Wanted money safely tucked away in the bank.
The table-waiting day job is a thing of the past, at least for the present, and as if to suggest that that state of affairs could become a permanent one, the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company is waiting on the first draft of a follow-up.
And waiting. And waiting. And—as poems, play festivals, groupie temptations, and other complications come unbidden, but a new script resolutely doesn’t—waiting some more. The problem isn’t a lack of ideas—quite the converse, in fact, Lefkowitz finds himself living a kind of autobiographical schizophrenia, observing and assessing his life moment to moment, a voice in his head constantly nagging: “Maybe you should write about that.” With so much input, is it any wonder Lefkowitz can’t find a focus for his output?
Again in Now What?, Lefkowitz proves a master of the well-chosen word, the well-timed gesture that upends the import of a just-
delivered line, the sudden shift from brightly silly to full-fathom sad. And again, the show’s success depends on a delicate alchemy of carefully honed delivery and deftly shaped material.
He reflects, amusingly, on other failures—among them a doomed classroom attempt at an O’Neill-style family drama, starring an aspiring-artist Josh character (whose cardboard-hero dialogue suggests that real-life Josh has since developed both a keen ear and a healthy contempt for bad writing).
He attempts, fitfully, to explore other forms—with, among other horrors, a torn-from-the-headlines drama on North Korea’s nuclear aspirations. (It proves so clunky that the ghost of political-theater godfather Arthur Miller appears to explain how thoroughly it sucks.)
Finally, of course, Lefkowitz returns to what he knows, spurred on less by the increasingly urgent queries from Washington than by escalating domestic frustrations: Anika, his girlfriend, has landed a three-month tour, with all the attendant temptations toward showmance, and where else is an angry writer-slash-
performer to explore his unhappiness but in front of an audience?
That’s one of the dangers of Lefkowitz’s chosen form, of course: Everyone, from groupie to agent to artistic director to domestic partner, becomes fodder for his monologues, and when their agendas conflict with his, he gets the last word. Fans, employers, girlfriend all dance to his tune, and to his credit, he seems to harbor at least a few doubts about where artistic license ends and simple decency begins. “You’re going to destroy us,” Anika tells him—at least according to his account—and it’s a measure of how convincing a storyteller he is that you wonder whether, in repeating the prediction, Lefkowitz has just helped make it come true.