Much more a one-woman show containing comedic elements than hour of straightforward stand up, Edinburgh Festival Fringe veteran Laura Levites’s Selfhelpess flies by faster than comparable productions engineered to strain at the seams with gags. The explanation might lie in the conversational, engaging narrative the New Yorker unspools inch by fascinating inch. Levites isn’t demanding audience members laugh on cue; the self-described “lunatic,” “completely joyless person” and “fucking miserable bitch” is merely asking them to listen in as she works through a few issues.
“Hello, I’m Laura, and I’m a very unhappy person,” she opens, jumping right into her chronic battles with depression, wondering “Is it because my dad died right before prom just so he could get out of buying me a dress?” Sedona, Arizona’s energy vortex, keeping a shaman on speed dial, voodoo, a “healer” who treated her on a bar’s pool table, binaural beats, Anthony Robbins, meditation and even marijuana offered no relief; the only fleeting escape she experienced was via “the best interactive video game ever, eBay,” for which she utilized three separate phone apps. “I might be a loser in life,” she sighs, “but I am a winner on eBay.”
After creating an entire fantasy future around and then losing out on a tie-dyed Marc Jacobs bag named “Storm,” Levites realized she was plagued with oniomania—the compulsive desire to shop—and subsequently bought a book about it on eBay. Broke and living with her younger brother, the downward spiral continued until the day she “decided to do something about it, to take control of my life…and kill myself.” But as she prepared to jump out the tenth-story window, she realized passersby would take pictures of her body, and thus she needed a flattering new dress…off eBay.
Packed with resolute, taut energy, Selfhelpless imparts such supplemental information as the fun fact that the first self-help book (entitled Self-Help) dates back to 1859 and was written by a Scot named Samuel Smiles. Published on the same day as Darwin’s Origin of Species, Self-Help completely outsold Darwin, and still does to this day. The irony of human beings rating their fragile mental states above the evolution of every other creature on earth is not lost on Levites, who admits to stealing her mother’s credit card, going two and a half weeks without sleep, accidentally burning her own house down and submerging her car underwater before her situation saw improvement.
Instead of a constructed stage character, Levites presents a flesh-and-blood bundle of warring emotions who finally got back on track with the aid of two therapists and the proper diagnosis of ADD and bipolar disorder. But it took surviving a violent encounter with the side of a taxicab to fully transform her into the doggedly optimistic storyteller she is onstage. Like the red marks fading into scars on her knees, her ever-evolving story is one that lingers as a reminder that, as Samuel Smiles imparted, without uphill battles, we can never achieve success.