Novelist Walker Percy’s “Lost in the Cosmos” (1983), subtitled “The Last Self-Help Book,” parodied a certain (and ever-popular) brand of motivational best-sellers, outlining a series of philosophical and existential “thought experiments” intended to help readers discover and realize who they are in relation to the universe — or, perhaps, who they’re not.
Venerable Theatrical Outfit artistic director Tom Key’s stage adaptation of “Lost in the Cosmos,” subtitled “The Last Self-Help Seminar,” is rife with satirical promise and possibility, as well — especially with Kevin Gillese at the helm, the artistic director of the vivacious improvisational company Dad’s Garage, working with an experienced ensemble of comedic actors.
Regrettably, though, their collaborative “futuristic comedy” isn’t exactly a match made in the heavens. It’s as if the show were too much by-the-book, and not enough of a suitably reinvented or very spirited sendup of self-help seminars themselves, ultimately impressing like an elaborate classroom lecture (with snazzy graphics designed by Adam Pinney) instead of a truly interactive exercise.
After a prefatory bit of amusing audience participation, from which emerges a planted “volunteer” in the crowd, we essentially become detached observers to the action, rather than personally connected or involved with it. It’s mostly all about him. And that’s OK, in large part, since he, a tirelessly soul-searching dentist named Harold, is portrayed here by the dandy Dan Triandiflou.
Although Key initially wrote the script back in the mid-1990s (sometime before Polaroid Instamatic cameras became antiquated and obsolete), it has been newly updated to give Triandiflou two of the show’s funniest highlights: In one fleeting moment, he delivers an inspired Trumpian tweet; in another more prolonged episode, he channels TV’s Dr. Phil with priceless precision.
The seminar’s three co-hosts (performed by Bart Hansard, Amber Nash and Tara Ochs) eventually set forth to guide Harold on an intergalactic odyssey to “find” himself, through various metaphysical pop quizzes and role-playing scenarios devised to test the many aspects of his “self” — the amnesiac self and the bored self, the envious one, the demoniac one, the promiscuous one.
It proves to be an arduous journey for poor Harold, with no easy answers. Looking for spiritual balance, he’s torn by conflicting emotions. In noble pursuit of building his self-esteem, he mainly gets depressed. Then again, somehow, the more he loses hope, the better he feels. After intermission, as lost as ever, he finally quips, “What are we getting at here?”
Gillese’s stock and trade at Dad’s typically takes full advantage of the energetic spontaneity of improv. Conversely, in “Lost in the Cosmos,” his cast often mills around designer Nadia Morgan’s sleek set, basically reciting a lot of textbook mumbo-jumbo. Bogged down with so much dense and heady talk, the show’s lackadaisical drive and pace tend to make the presumably flighty and insightful comedy seem phony and forced.
It might be a real trip for Harold, at least, but for the rest of us attending this seminar, it prematurely begs the question: Are we there yet? Or, more accurately, as the case may be: Is he there yet?
“Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Seminar”
Through Feb. 26. 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (Feb. 15 only); 2:30 p.m. Thursday (Feb. 23 only). $20-$48. Theatrical Outfit (the Balzer Theater at Herren’s), 84 Luckie St., Atlanta. 678-528-1500, www.theatricaloutfit.org.
Bottom line: Your “bored self” may prevail.