A loosely drawn girl eyes a gold star near the top of an illustrated tree. She climbs up to reach it but tumbles to the ground and lands on her feet. The brief animation serves to introduce “Approval Junkie,” a one-woman Audible production that opened Tuesday at the Minetta Lane Theater, neatly encapsulating the whole of its familiar, and repeated, moral fable about chasing the highs of success.
By some measures, the subject in this case is exceptional. “Approval Junkie” is written and performed by the radio and television journalist Faith Salie, in collaboration with the director Amanda Watkins. Fans may recognize Salie’s bright, even demeanor from her roles as a regular panelist on the NPR news quiz show “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!” and as a contributor to “CBS News Sunday Morning,” positions that reward gentle, authoritative relatability.
But the anecdotes from her life that Salie recalls here, of striving for achievement and affirmation, reflect gendered expectations and social pressures that many women will recognize.
After four years of competing in her high school pageant, Salie finally won by performing a Barbra Streisand song in a rainbow-sequin mini. She still has the tiara. (“It’s missing some stones … aren’t we all?”) Pursuit of the spotlight drew her to Los Angeles, where an acting coach once asked, “Why aren’t you as pretty as I want you to be?” adding that motherhood would soften her features.
Salie’s quest for thinness led to early struggles with anorexia and a lasting fixation on appearance. “I don’t know who could tell me enough that I’m beautiful,” she says.
Perhaps it’s no surprise then that Salie is not exactly an unselfconscious performer. With the exception of one truly unrestrained outburst (at an Ayurvedic healing center, no less), onstage she is poised and polished, watchfully reserved. This is not an unruly takedown of conventional womanhood’s narrow strictures from someone on the outside. In a navy silk jumpsuit and beige heels (the costume design is by Ivan Ingermann), Salie could stroll into an advertisement for no-makeup makeup, pointing to the beauty ideals she embodies as a trap.
The production has an amiable, anodyne quality well tailored to its release as an Audible Original recording (“Approval Junkie” is based on Salie’s 2016 book of essays of the same name). Watkins’ minimal staging marks Salie’s incidental transitions with as little as the spin of a bar stool or a few steps to one side. A backdrop of fractured panels glows in shades of pastel (the set design is by Jack Magaw, and lighting by Amanda Zieve), and a buoyant piano composition by the sound designer Brandon Bush comforts listeners like a plush love seat.
“Approval Junkie” wants to suggest a certain self-awareness about the fallacy of craving outside validation. But for all its pat wisdom — “Don’t change yourself for someone else,” Salie tells her kids, “change yourself for you” — the play still demonstrates the value of caring what other people think.
“Seeking approval has not undone me,” Salie says. “It’s built me.” Even so, being put together is not nearly as interesting onstage as falling apart.
Through Dec. 12 at the Minetta Lane Theater, Manhattan; audible.com/theater. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.
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