SELF-HELP Is A Black-hearted Farce
Gary Smith
Special to The Hamilton Spectator
April 8, 2002

What: Self Help

Where: Du Maurier Ltd. Centre, 190 King William St.

When: Now through April 20

Evenings at 8 p.m., Saturday matinees at 2

Tickets: $26 to $47

Phone: 905-522-7529


There's a body in the study, a detective in the hall and a nosy Sun reporter prowling the second floor. What are stressed out, self-help gurus Cindy and Hal Savage to do? Have sex on the pool table, of course. We are in the fantasyland of stage farce. Everything about this wacky Norm Foster comedy is amplified through the distorting lens of a magnificent magnifying glass.

Second rate actors who are playing in The Odd Couple at a cheap dinner theatre production somewhere on the outskirts of Flin Flon, Cindy and Hal are bored with the mediocrity of their piffling success. Their lives, largely transient and inconsequential, fit neatly into the couple of battered suitcases waiting in the rusted out car that takes them from show to show.

They long for the whole enchilada -- the big break that will transport them to the top and a sleekly decorated home in the suburbs. Their big chance comes with an opportunity to reinvent themselves as self-help prophets. You know the sort -- those frenetic, loud-mouthed exponents of self-awareness who sell their trumped up tapes and manuals to the socially and emotionally disadvantaged. They become a sort of pumped up evangelical team, dispensing their platitudes to achieve overnight success. And although the things they espouse are as phoney as a $3 bill, they do touch peoples' lives as well as their pocketbooks.

But what happens when there's trouble in paradise, when Hal and Cindy lose connection with their own, now comfortable lives? That's where playwright Foster leaps out of the arena of situation comedy and into a full blown, frontal assault on the dark heart of self-deception. His world premiere comedy, Self Help, which has audiences rolling happily in Theatre Aquarius aisles, is a sensational, black-hearted farce.

Getting off some insightful zingers about these oily practitioners who make emotional healing a grandstand success, Foster is at the top of his game. He's never been funnier. Eschewing the sentimental warmth of works like Ethan Claymore and the silly affectations of comedies like The Affections of May, Foster goes for the funnybone and the jugular. And if at times the humour descends to the silly -- bathroom jokes and sniggering asides about unmanly gay actors that are by now Foster trademarks -- these lapses into the moronic are minimal.

Offset by some brilliantly witty asides about such august institutions as the police force, the newspaper trade and motivational speakers, this comedy crackles with invention. It is one of the best flat out farces I've seen. With more punch and pounce than anything by that quintessential British farceur Ray Cooney, Self Help's high energy rush of wisdom and wit makes it a natural for dinner theatres like Mississauga's Stage West. It would even look good on the Royal Alexandra stage in Toronto, as part of a Mirvish subscription series package.

If Self Help does move on to any number of possible future locations, let's hope inventive director Max Reimer and this terrific cast get to go with it. It is difficult to imagine Foster's play in better hands. It races across Barbara Gordon's lavish, art deco-inspired living room, with its overstuffed, expensive looking furniture, like some frantic vision of the Boston Marathon.

Patricia Yeatman and Brian McKay are terrific as the snake oil salesmen, dispensing Self Help's lingo of success. Each has an impeccable sense of timing, rubbed rough and raw against Self Help's free-wheeling comedy. Each has a way of making rather despicable characters quite vulnerable in spite of their flim-flam excesses. But if Yeatman and McKay are the comic linchpins of Self Help, the other actors support them superbly.

Catherine Fitch almost steals the show with her hang-dog maid routine, blossoming into a mat-haired Grinch as the play rolls toward its frantic conclusion. Watching her see-saw up and down a strategically placed set of living steps is almost worth the price of admission alone.

And the wonderful Jo-Anne Kirwan Clark, with her whiskey-racked, alto voice, is a hoot as Hal and Cindy's tough agent Ruby.

Neil Foster and Robert Latimer, as the detective and the newspaper columnist respectively, contribute to the fun.

After a misguided production of Art and a sexless, empty one of Wuthering Heights, Aquarius is back on track with Self Help.

Award-winning critic Gary Smith has been writing dance and theatre reviews for the Hamilton Spectator for over 20 years. He also directs shows in the Hamilton area.

Catherine Fitch, Robert Latimer, Jo-Anne Kirwan Clark, Neil Foster, Patricia Yeatman and Brian McKay make a great comedy team in the hilarious Theatre Aquarius production of Self Help.
  Brian McKay and Patricia Yeatman find success dispensing platitudes in Self Help. Photos by Sheryl Nadler, the Hamilton Spectator