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How Theater Failed America (review)

04.23.08
Mike Daisey
Time Out New York

Ace monologuist Mike Daisey merits high marks for his incisive look at the perilous state of regional theater. If his answer to How Theater Failed America isn't exactly revolutionary ("we failed it"), his observations about the corporate mentality of nonprofit companies leaving scant room for artists, blithely coupled with anecdotes about his own artistic evolution, are hardy and hilarious.

A portly, blustering performing with a featherweight voice, Daisey is a working man's Spalding Gray: boyish passion meshed with refined contemplation. The most satisfying moments in the show are his recollections of the days when he did theater on the cheap. He reminisces about a summer of rats and ramen noodles when he launched a reperatory company with a college pal at a Maine Elks Lodge; recalls how directing 60 misfit high-school students in a commedia dell'arte performance pulled him out of a suicidal stupor; and revisits the unnerving time he masturbated onstage in Seattle.

In Daisey's rants, the fun comes as much from the presentation as from the point, even when he's mapping familiar territory about overworked directors and underrehearsed plays or describing how he and his director wife, Jean-Michele Gregory, are the "carrion birds of the American theater," because their low-budget solo shows frequently replace more costly productions. One artistic director dubbed Daisey's harangue "How Theater Became America"; appropriately in an important election year, it is not only vastly entertaining, it's also a call to action.