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Basic Help (2014 Frigid New York Festival)

by Karen Tortora-Lee on March 7, 2014

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Strangedog Theatre’s Basic Help begins with a situation that is all too familiar to anyone who has ever spent endless minutes weaving through the labyrinth of telephone prompts in the hopes of eventually getting to speak with a live person who can actually help you.

We first come upon Cynthia (Megan Greener) at this exact moment of human contact.  Cynthia is so startled and relieved to talk to a human being that the first thing she does is relate her frustration at being navigated through an endless maze to finally get to an actual rep. The phone-chain hierarchy is described perfectly – beginning with the the remote, robotic push 1 for this, 2 for that menu options which lead to the more interactive but no less animatronic“Okay.  I heard you say such-and-such.  Is that correct?  Okay.  One moment while I check that …” 

So of course when Cynthia is finally connected with Simon (Gavin Earl Johnson) who answers the line with a scripted version of Thank you for calling Magicprep Kitchenware where all you kitchen prep is magic.  What is the name of the Magicprep Kitchenware customer I have the pleasure of speaking with?  is it any wonder that she demands verification that he is, in fact, human – and not just an even more clever version of robotic technology who will be of no more help to her than all the others?

On the surface, Cynthia seems a bit high strung.  I mean, really – it’s just kitchenware.  Does having a blender which makes an unexpected noise warrant a flood of crazy-lady rantings and accusations?  Whether it does or doesn’t, Simon isn’t paid to really respond thoughtfully or give actual conversation anyway.  He’s just meant to help the customer on the other end of the line, ask them if there’s any thing else he can help them with today, wish them a nice day, and sign off so that he can answer the next call.  Simple.

Only it’s not that simple.  Yes, Cynthia is high strung – but there’s a reason.  And Simon does have more thoughtful, more conversational responses – he’s just not expected to voice them.  So when Cynthia calls back the next day on some other pretext about her blender (“I lied to you when you asked if it was a gift …”) it gives the two a chance to connect a bit deeper – but only just. It’s enough of a connection, however, for Simon to give Cynthia his direct extension so that she can bypass the maze and get him directly.  On the one hand, this is crazy.   She’s obviously got a lot of time on her hands – she will obviously call again.  On the other hand … not so crazy.  Because she will obviously call again.

And so begins a strange friendship.  And it is a friendship.  The wonderful thing that playwright Ben Clawson has a gift for understanding is that the human mind is a complex thing and not all connections need to be romantic in order for them to be deeply moving and affecting.  Director Artem Yatsunov interprets this beautifully.  While there is most definitely a type of playfulness which grows between Cynthia and Simon as the phone calls become a daily ritual, the intimacy – and there is definitely intimacy – never crosses into coy flirtation.  Nevertheless Yatsunov makes it obvious that these two human beings – without seeing each other, without REALLY knowing each other beyond the scope of these brief daily interactions, have created a bond which both rely on.  Sometimes emotional intimacy is more of a life preserver than any other kind of intimacy.  But, like a life-preserver, some intimacies are self contained and serve only one purpose – and aren’t useful unless you’re lost at sea.

The feasibility of BASIC HELP sits squarely on the shoulders of Greener and Johnson and both do a wonderful job of breathing life into their characters.  Even more-so, their nuanced performance allows you to watch as they grow closer, even as the two actors never lock eyes or even face each other.  No small feat.  In just the act of simple phone calls they call forth humor, poignancy and even emptiness.  They succeed in finding things that not only connect them to each other, but to the audience as well.

Musician David Byrne said “Sometimes it’s a form of love just to talk to somebody that you have nothing in common with and still be fascinated by their presence.” Do Cynthia and Simon fascinate one another? To an extent. They certainly intrigue one another. And at the time their phone calls happen they wake each other up a bit.

BASIC HELP does a beautiful job of exploring unexpected connections found in strange places which can lead us to decisions we wouldn’t have been brave enough to make otherwise. We live in a society where we can disclose our innermost thoughts on Tumblr anonymously via a screen name such as starburstfireflygrrrrl and get more support from Gothgrrrl92 than we do our own friends IRL. This simply underscores how the scenario of BASIC HELP is more accessible and commonplace than we think. Making friends with a stranger who we will never meet or talk to again?  It happens every day.  And if you think it doesn’t – remember this review the next time you’re pouring your heart out to the faceless masses on line. Think of BASIC HELP.  And know: someone’s listening. And someone’s always there to give help – basic or otherwise.


Basic Help
Company: StrangeDog. Theatre
Written by: Ben Clawson
Directed by: Artem Yatsunov

Remaining Performance:
Mar 09, 12:30PM

Click HERE for tickets

Running time: 0 h 50 min
Price: $16.00
Seating: General Admission

UNDER St Marks
94 St Marks Place
New York , New York 10009
1st Ave and Ave A

Horse Trade Theater Group will present the 8th Annual FRIGID New York Festival at The Kraine Theater (85 East 4th Street between 2nd Avenue and Bowery) and UNDER St. Marks (94 St. Marks Place between 1st Avenue and Avenue A) February 19-March 9. Tickets are available for purchase in advance at or by calling 212-868-4444. 

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