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The nimble monologist Mike Daisey admits, right up front, that his current show’s title is bullshit: How Theater Failed America is really more a wisecrack-artist’s critique of the theater biz than an inquiry into whether the art form itself has let audiences down.
But for all the comic broadsides—and make no mistake, Daisey can be wildly funny—it’s a passionately engaged critique. The snarky, hyperbolic anecdotes are grounded in truth: some cheese-hoarding, underpaid actors do face a choice between an itinerant career and the comforts of home and family, and some overextended, board-plagued artistic directors do end up acting like machine-feeding automatons, choosing plays to fill cookie-cutter seasonal slots rather than programming the shows that move them most.
Quibble with his analysis if you like; point out that these things vary from city to city if you must; suggest that there’s room for different modes of making theater if you dare. (Those arguments have been percolating around the D.C. theaterverse since Monday night’s post-show roundtable, at which half of the actors in town turned up to watch Daisey grill the scene’s most powerful artistic directors.) But give the man credit for caring: Daisey can paint such an uproariously skewed portrait of a dysfunctional regional-theater ecosystem only because he’s spent so much time getting to know it.
What’s most powerful about How Theater Failed America, though, isn’t Daisey’s takedown of the gotta-build-a-building urge (which will certainly strike home for D.C. audiences who’ve wondered who’ll fill all the new local seats) or his indictment of the creative compromises that (he argues) inevitably come with bigger budgets and broader constituencies. It’s the inescapable sense that Daisey is angry about the failings of theater’s biggest institutions chiefly because theater is the thing he literally can’t live without.
The jokes and the jabs, you see, are mostly filler. The real meat of How Theater Failed America is a trio of movingly told, delicately shaded stories about Daisey’s onstage adventures—in Seattle’s fringiest venues, as a teacher coaching a half-baked high-school festival production, with a madly ambitious repertory company one glorious Maine summer—and the hushed, shadowed memory of a time when there was none of that wild invention to come between the actor and a darkness that almost claimed him. The bile and the ire and the scorn boil off when he’s telling these stories, and what surfaces is…would you call it tenderness? Joy?
I would, and it’s infectious—and whether your passion is theater or cars or, I dunno, cowherding—it’ll remind you of everything you once thought possible and make you wonder whether it can’t be possible still.