How Theater Failed America (review)


Given its title and its many riffs on arts funding, Mike Daisey's latest monologue, "How Theater Failed America," might sound like a show made exclusively for legit insiders, but the piece should reach anyone who believes in live performance. Blending political anger with striking personal stories, Daisey insists nonprofit theaters are not just faceless institutions but collections of human beings with universal problems.

In the monologue's central metaphor, the regional theater system is suffering from depression because it lacks consistent personal relationships. New York actors pop in for six-week runs, while local artists are underutilized. Staff jobs get cut, while expensive new buildings get funded, and then those buildings often sit empty, devoid of the work they're supposed to nurture.

Although Daisey selects details to support his thesis, it's easy to counter many of his claims. In many cities, for instance, local actors do having thriving careers. Still, with a company as venerable as New York Theater Workshop laying off its entire production staff in the past week, there are cogent reasons to pause and consider what Daisey is saying.

But he's not a fire-and-brimstone preacher, and he's not out to shame some hazy group of donors and artistic staffers. Daisey's piece is effective because it acknowledges that most theater professionals are trying to do what's right. He empowers his audience by suggesting we have the capacity to make theater healthy, even if we're beholden to dying traditions and corporate mindsets. Since we're not being attacked, it's easier to absorb what's being said.

Better still, Daisey doesn't explicitly define his "theater in depression" conceit. Instead, he splices his musings on the regional model with stories about his own depression after college. He explains how he recovered by doing intimate work with low-budget theaters, trusting us to make the connection.

Throughout, Daisey's language is surprising and poetic. Coupled with his charming performance, his writing turns the monologue into satisfying entertainment. Even patrons who don't dream of becoming artistic directors may laugh at Daisey's impression of his acting teacher or be moved by his description of a misguided high school student who finds temporary freedom in a play.

Jean-Michele Gregory, Daisey's director and wife, expertly balances the rhetoric with the character-heavy bits. Elements tumble together so that a story about a terrible production of Genet's "The Balcony" feels inextricably linked to the fate of the regional theater scene.

That's the point, of course. Ultimately, dedicated artists are responsible for both the big picture and the small picture.