In How to Make Your Bitterness Work for You, now at Stage Werx, Kent Underwood (Fred Raker) is the kind of self-help expert who's most interested in helping himself. Sure, he's ostensibly giving a self-help seminar on his "patent-pending, five-step bitterness program" to us, but he's much more interested in his cell than he is in his audience. His book, which shares a title with the solo show, has been rejected by publishers 86 times, and the jumble of mantras, steps, anecdotes, and PowerPoint slides that make up his shtick is less a cohesive lesson than an attempt to rationalize rejections both sexual and literary as they bombard him via text message, which he constantly interrupts his seminar to read and respond to, an initially funny if ultimately repetitive and clunky device.
If the narrative of the show is predictable — so much bad luck befalls Kent so fast that a deus ex machina becomes the only way out of the play — Raker, who also wrote the show, has so mastered his caricature of a guru that simply attempting to follow his disorganized lesson is pleasure enough. Raker has clearly studied self-help literature and its penchant for slogans meant to be catchy and all-encompassing but that turn out awkward and facile. The show offers a never-ending supply of these morsels, and each new one tops the last: "Don't ignore your bitterness; explore your bitterness"; "Our bitter feelings have feelings."
Raker's delivery shows equally dedicated study. Under the direction of Kimberly Richards, he inserts faux-dramatic pauses only every few words or so, emphasizing points with too-sharp hand gestures the way you might if all you knew about public speaking was learned from a two-minute how-to video.
At the slightest snag, this façade of practiced calm melts away, and he starts to look a lot like Woody Allen. "I'm just still bugged by that slide," he says, minutes after one is botched. Later, at another provocation, he weeps softly in the corner while his projector displays, "Please Stand By." Kent might still be bitter that his brother's bar mitzvah was catered and his wasn't, but he's at least made his bitterness work for his audience.
Chance: A Musical Play about Love, Risk, and Getting It Right, now in a New Musical Theater of San Francisco world premiere under the direction of Robert Kalfin, is also centered on a psychologist — real, not armchair — who is less observant than he realizes and sees himself especially poorly. But unlike Kent Underwood, Gregory (Richard Hefner) is presented as earnestly as possible; unfortunately, Richard Isen's script doesn't have the substance to make all that heart look anything but sad.
At rise, Gregory is visited by The Lady (Randy Roberts), a drag queen and a "spirit guide," Carl Jung's term for a pesky imaginary friend, who serves three purposes: to wear costume designer Corrine H. DiTullio's divinely sequined gown; to be the plot device that pushes the reticent Gregory out of the house and into the arms of Chance (Ken Lear), a much younger gigolo with a fondness for spewing self-righteous class rage; and to spout lines from old movies starring Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, and the like. (As if one set of famous witticisms weren't enough, the script also interpolates Oscar Wilde quotes, which are spoken by music director Tammy Hall.)
Chance and Gregory are both the kind of testy, insecure people who take turns refusing to talk, walking off in huffs, and then crawling back to apologize — a flimsy seesaw for more than two hours of material. Isen throws AIDS into the mix, but it feels like a contrived attempt to make the show be "about" something, while only further stretching its running time. He fares little better writing dialogue. The cast can't do much with duds like, "Love always costs you something," or with songs that repeat what just transpired in a scene, particularly when an awkward and shallow stage gives them little room to move.
It's a good thing these two shows don't paint an accurate picture of mental health professionals (and amateurs). If they did, we'd all be better off getting our therapy from theater.