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Goethe Institut – Mainstage; 812 7th Streen NW

Remaining Performances:

Wednesday, July 13th 10 p.m. Saturday, July 16th 7:45 p.m. Sunday, July 17th 2 p.m. Wednesday, July 20th 8 p.m.

They say: “Is this comedy? Theater? An actual motivational talk? Whatever you call it, it will change your life forever, maybe. Off-Broadway writer/performer Laura Zam conjures Ken Johnson. Washington Post praise for other Zam work: “Funny”, “Smart”, “Beautiful”. Let Ken solve your problems.”

Glen’s Take:Well, look, lady, if you’re just gonna leave it up to us to decide whether you’re doing character-based stand-up, a satirical performance piece, or a straight-up no-foolin’ self-help seminar, we’re gonna need a little more from you.  It’s not that can’t do all three, of course, but right now you’re hitting those three notes at once, with equal emphasis, all evening long. If you want us to come with you, we need more than that loud and fuzzy power chord; you’re gonna have to do more to direct our attention as you shift between modes.

The setup: Laura Zam’s self-help guru Ken Johnson (hair, suit and cartoonish “Run, Forrest!” accent of late-period Ernest Angley, fervor of Tony Robbins, dance moves of Michael Scott) walks us through the Seven Openings (“seven open sores!”), his multi-step system for overcoming “Crappy Cogitating” with the help of patented “Un-ffirmations” (Ex.: “I am fat, and I’ve hurt the people that I love.”) that lead to the “Ding-Dong Door” behind which our fondest desires reside.

If this be stand-up, it’s passable enough – a bit too padded and light on the jokes, perhaps, but Zam’s comfortable in front of an audience and enjoys prowling the stage like a trapped animal.  If it be character-based performance, however, things get a bit stickier: Ken’s Alabama accent is more caricature than character (Zam monophthongizes the holy hell out of that dipthong of hers ‘till it’s fixin’ to burst), and the show keeps introducing  intriguing elements (like Ken’s oddly silent and possibly embittered wife Pam) that never manage to lead anywhere. The secrets from Ken’s past that come to light over the course of the hour turn out to be dark, yes, but fail to live up to the kind of truly troubled and twisted stuff hinted at in a series of murmured asides at the top of the hour. As a result, the show’s satirical edge is more butter knife than scalpel.

And that’s why, as an actual self-help seminar … it sort of works. In fact, your program includes contact information should you wish to book Ken for your next off-site strategic planning  potlatch (“This comic, motivational talk rides the new wave of infotainment that is revolutionizing conferences, meetings, retreats and other organizational events.”)  You heard that right: The revolution will be infotained.

See it if: You think it’s about time someone put that Seven Habits of Highly Effective People guy in his place.  (NOTE: Seven Habits was published in 1989. I am just saying.)

Skip it if: You want to see the self-help movement skewered, not poked with soft cushions.