Monologist Mike Daisey is a commanding, captivating presence as he addresses the state of live theater in this country. He just doesn’t know when enough is enough, holding forth for more than two intermissionless hours. Helmer Jean-Michele Gregory, who is also his collaborator, certainly has helped Daisey hone and balance his rhetoric, but more attention needs to be paid to restraint. That said, “How Theater Failed America” offers a passionate cautionary narrative, finely detailing the escalating sacrifice of artistic humanity for the sake of the corporate arts edifice.
Sitting at a near-bare table, beneath severely focused overhead lighting, Daisey alternately riffs on the art-deprived structure of contemporary regional theater (“theater in depression”) and his own harrowing journey to artistic fulfillment. He readily admits that his artistic views were nurtured during his theater-student days at a small college in his home state of Maine and his participation in the repertory-driven Theater at Monmouth, where young thesps gloried in the labor of performing six full-length plays a week in addition to children’s theater.
Daisey’s attention-grabbing ability to segue instantly from calm discourse to pulsating rage serves him well as he analyzes the deconstruction of this country’s original concept of community-based regional theater. Without leaving the sanctuary of his table, he bemoans the loss of the family of artists that took the stage season after season, intricately interwoven within a town’s artistic fabric. He does this while hilariously spearing the current mandate of flying in “freeze-dried” actors from out of town, who may or may not have appeared on “Law and Order,” to fill in the “corporate slots” that are today’s nonprofit large theater subscription seasons.
Although Daisey’s rage against the socioeconomic realities of maintaining the political structure of funded arts in this country is palpable, he admits to the audience, “You already know this.” But that doesn’t stop him from hammering in the six-inch nails of his disdain ever deeper. At times, this turns lecture into drone.
This accomplished vocal artist is much more captivating when relating his own jaundiced life experience as a once-suicidal young actor who finally found his calling. His tales are deliciously self-deprecating and often self-loathing, chronicling his failed college studies, an inept attempt to create his own repertory theater company, an outrageous effort to guide the local high school drama club through a one-act regional theater competition and a vulgarly engrossing survey of his grunge theater days in Seattle.
In a final summation, Daisey forlornly admits that “How Theater Failed America” would be more aptly titled “How Theater Became America.”