It's almost counterintuitive to be reviewing Approval Junkie — to be evaluating the merit of Faith Salie's solo show, which ultimately concludes that the approval of others is trifling in comparison to your own self-assurance. It would be more counterintuitive still to pan the show. Luckily, that, at least, isn't necessary. There's a moment in Approval Junkie where Salie recalls being rejected for an acting role created for her, and now, she finally gets to play herself and excels.
Salie may have made her name as a TV and radio correspondent (she's won Emmys for her work on CBS Sunday Morning and is a frequent panelist on NPR’s Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!), but she started out as a capital T-K Theatre Kid, and it shows. She commands the Minetta Lane Theatre stage with charisma and nearly unrelenting pep (supported by equally vibrant lighting and sound design by Amanda Zieve and Brandon Bush, respectively). In any other show that's not about a woman reenacting a lifetime of desperate approval-seeking, that pep would be the mark of trying too hard, overacting in the way that Salie outright acknowledges doesn't play well in theatre. But here, it works perfectly, because her "character" is precisely an earnest young woman trying too hard, being played by a woman who we know has more confidence and can poke fun at her past self. Moreover, one of Salie's first stories is of her fierce bid to win her high school's Miss Aphrodite beauty pageant, and there's really no better arena for an over-the-top performance. (Said performance culminates in a snippet of a Barbra Streisand rendition that Salie absolutely nails.)
The show is structured like a book in which each anecdote is a chapter, clearly separated by the dimming of lights and presented in loosely chronological order. All have a healthy dose of witty humor, but whereas the pageant is almost pure camp, the rest of her stories have a grave edge. Among them: She attends a meeting with an acting coach that leads her to believe getting bangs will solve all her problems, but their conversation also ends up affirming her life's desire to be a mother. She goes to a spiritual healing center at the suggestion of her ex-husband (or, as she calls him, her "wasband"), and she ends up changing not for him, but for herself, exorcising some deep-seated grief.
The stories share the show's expected theme — that Salie, while doing things to get others' approval, found fulfillment when she focused on herself. The message reads trite on paper, but Salie's journey reads fresh on stage — how many people get an exorcism to please their partner? That said, her stories, some of which touch on her struggles with body image and the ticking of her biological clock, aren't just about Salie, in a way. The show calls to mind how many women are conditioned to be "approval junkies" and mold their appearances and personalities to appeal to others.
But importantly, Salie doesn't make a desire for approval into yet another quality women must suppress. Salie's self-effacing tendencies ended up serving her well when it came time to devote herself to her children's wellbeing. It's this parallel Salie draws, especially in her later anecdotes, between being an "approval junkie" and being a mother that pushes Approval Junkie from an endearing yet cookie-cutter memoir about overcoming a personal obstacle — in Salie's case, her approval-seeking — to, instead, a clever story with a fresh perspective on reclaiming such an "obstacle" as something that defines the best version of you. And it's the best version of Salie that's on display in Approval Junkie — not that she needs my approval.
Photo credit: Faith Salie in Approval Junkie. (Photo by Daniel Rader)