Hey! Show Business Is Not a Business

04.21.08
Mike Daisey
The New York Times

Mike Daisey is not an instantly likable performer. He starts his latest monologue, "How Theater Failed America," at a ranting pitch, a self-described fat guy who in minutes has sweat pouring down his reddened face. But he changes that tone in a flash and becomes so endearingly friendly that there was a moment, deep into his opening-night performance, when the entire room was quietly rapt - not what you would expect at Joe's Pub, where silverware clangs while waiters circle. It takes a remarkable performer to pull that off.

Mr. Daisey, who tells personal stories in the spare, Spalding Gray style, is best known for "21 Dog Years," an account of his time laboring in the brick-and-mortar of amazon.com. The title of this new piece, like his angry first impression, is misleading. The show is not a tirade but a gentle remembrance of how Mr. Daisey came to love theater, combined with some very funny stories about his professional misadventures (playing a masturbating bishop in a Seattle production of Genet's "Balcony" was one), and sardonic rebukes to the corporate types who now hold American theater, especially regional theater, hostage.

Recalling his college days at what he calls a micro-Ivy in New England, he combines a sense of the ridiculous - an inspiring acting teacher resembled Gollum in "Lord of the Rings" - with an unsappy yet powerful sense of the wonder of theater. As an audience member at the college's repertory season, he discovered the magic of actors transforming themselves every day into vastly different people.

He and five friends tried to reproduce that magic - with the evening's most hilarious results - by founding Theater on the Pond, a one-summer-long experiment in far western Maine. There's regional theater, but that spot was ridiculous. Scheduling David Mamet next to Tennessee Williams and Neil Simon, troupe members did everything from act to buy gels for the lights. "We had gels, 'cause what are we, animals?" he asks, sardonically positioning himself as both inside and outside the theater world while never dropping his regular-guy persona.

As a professional actor traveling the country, he finds city after city where, he says, "freeze-dried actors from New York" are flown in for single runs, and he mourns the loss of the community that repertory fosters. He can be both understanding of the economic necessities and disingenuous about how simple a let's-make-some-art project can be, but mostly his observations about the problems facing theater are as obvious as: Art is not a commodity. His most pointed comment quotes an artistic director who worries: What if we lowered prices and audiences still didn't come? What if no one cares?

"It's a cultural problem, not an economic problem," Mr. Daisey says. (Not very constructive but worth thinking about.)

Problem-solving isn't his strength anyway; spinning out his personal story and unobtrusively taking the audience with him is. The moment that held everyone spellbound came when the monologue took an unexpectedly dark turn. He was out of college and seriously depressed, staying in bed all day and taking long nighttime walks. One walk led him into icy water, and he casually mentions two previous suicide attempts.

He is pulled out of this depression by working with high school acting students, including Steve, a misfit in whom Mr. Daisey sees himself. He suggests - without saying as much - that they are both deeply unhappy people who find a refuge in performing, escaping onstage into other personalities, other realities. This section of the monologue offers tantalizing hints at the depths Mr. Daisey might have explored but chose not to.

No need to hold that against him, though. He may not have much to say, but he says it with enough mastery to restore that sense of wonder to the theater.