Once again, Mike Daisey has proven himself that rare theatrical creature: An entertaining performer with something valuable to say. In his new monologue, “If You See Something Say Something,” Daisey’s personal eccentricities ground his critique of America’s culture of fear, while hard facts about nuclear weapons and the Department of Homeland Security provoke his funniest observations. Ultimately, he blends the personal and the political so well that America xenophobia seems almost manageable — a problem any of us can comprehend.
Daisey shapes the monologue around his pilgrimage to Trinity, the New Mexico site where the first nuclear weapon was tested. Though it’s a national landmark, the area is only open to the public on two days a year, partly because it’s still radioactive. This strange mixture of secrecy and public access nicely encapsulates what Daisey is exploring.
Namely, he’s interested in how our culture has created its “language of security,” so that terror threats seem as unavoidable as delays at the airport. Each new observation about our current climate is tied to another discovery at the Trinity site, until Daisey persuasively argues that we’ve been heading toward paranoia since WWII.
He strengthens his case by blaming more than some faceless government. With hilarious detail, for instance, he recalls how getting pickpocketed on vacation made him wary of everyone he saw. Later, he relates a troubling personal story about Sam Cohen, the American physicist credited with creating the neutron bomb. His point is that frail, frightened humans are at the root of institutionalized dread.
But despite some obvious cynicism, Daisey never tells us how to feel. He lets us make the biggest connections between his various stories, leaving us to our own reactions.
As always, his volcanic performance style, expertly shaped by long-time collaborator Jean-Michele Gregory, cements the impact of his writing. Sitting behind a table, dabbing his face with a black handkerchief as he references notes from a yellow legal pad, Daisey treats his message like a secular sermon. In a single anecdote, he can be everything from a hysterical drinking buddy to the most convincing town council member, and his shifting energy keeps his work alive.
Daisey and Gregory also know when it’s time for a break, inserting several moments of silence. Like deep breaths, these pauses give us time to absorb what we’re hearing before diving into the next installment of a gripping, vital story.