The ethics of literature isn’t typical fodder for any drama, let alone a one-man show. Yet Mike Daisey has chosen the lies of two disgraced authors, James Frey and J.T. Leroy, as the basis for his delightful, if at times overwrought, “Truth: The Heart Is a Million Little Pieces Above All Things.” But this series of riffs is about much more than scandal; it’s a collection of colorful personal stories and astute observations about storytelling itself. The popular downtown Gotham performer brings his everyman charisma to a midtown stage for a show that’s more than the sum of its controversies.
When the twin flaps of Leroy and Frey first came to light, public reaction was briefly shocked, then fatigued. The former (actually a failed novelist named Laura Alpert) had created a false autobiography as a transgendered teen prostitute to jazz up her tales on the page. Frey, meanwhile, was the memoirist who exaggerated or fabricated parts of his addict past in his two memoirs, “A Million Little Pieces” and “My Friend Leonard.” Both authors were written off as craven publicity-seekers.
In “Truth,” Daisey has set himself a formidable challenge, taking aim at subjects most people have forgotten even existed. In a world where the muddied line between reality and fiction has yielded more global — and tragic — consequences, Leroy’s laxity and Frey’s fibs seem like yesterday’s footnotes less than a year after they came to light.
But Daisey has a sensitive, nuanced view. He thinks the demands of personal storytelling — and the psychology of the storytellers — had as much to do with the offenses as anything else. Despite sprinkling some dust of moral indignation, Daisey is less concerned with easy scolding than with how and why storytellers operate.
It wasn’t simple profit that drove Frey to his literary deviance; it was a need to create a narrative that made sense to him, a point Daisey touchingly illustrates by describing an embellishment from one of his past performances. Frey and Leroy are thematic springboards, and Daisey uses them to leap into larger issues of self-dramatization.
There’s no one better equipped for the job: Daisey is a teacher of the art of storytelling. This gives him a chance to recap some of his students’ fudging and avoidance, which he does with considerable comic polish. Daisey also happens to have a few surprises from his own past to share.
Not that his life is unusually striking. Daisey’s reminiscing about a high school class clown prone to outrageousness, for example, feels more mild than his tone would suggest. But the performer’s description is consistently evocative, capturing a psychology of the everyday that’s subtle and smart. He describes eloquently the temptation to seek out the young daughter he’s never met, and the modern ritual of the high school reunion (doing shots of Jagermeister holed up in their room as he and a friend quote lines from “New Jack City”). Both are familiar enough to make him likable yet individual enough to be intriguing.
Daisey first came to prominence five years ago with “21 Dog Years,” a stage piece about his time as a low-level employee at Amazon.com. Since then, he has mined his experiences in a host of one-man vehicles, to varying degrees of effect — and ambition. (In the spring, he created a series in which he performed a different chapter of the same story on four consecutive weekends.)
For a man whose performance revolves around words, Daisey sometimes puts together the wrong combination; inaccurate phrases like “ambling intensity” grate. Also, his teaching background is manifest in his delivery, which can flirt with the patronizing.
His setup is a simple desk, from which he tells his stories and turns over a neat stack of pages when he’s beginning a new section. It’s not a stage most performers — apart from the late Spalding Gray, perhaps — manage easily; a grown man sitting in one place for hours talking about himself can come off as wan and self-important at the same time.
What helps him avoid the pitfalls of didacticism is an eye attuned to the absurdity of daily life. In assessing the story of Frey and Leroy, Daisey comes to a judgment that is strict but sympathetic; he suggests that if people are often the least reliable narrators of their own lives, they are also sometimes the most engaging.