Peter Marks reviews ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs’

Don’t get Mike Daisey started on Steve Jobs. On second thought — do! This brash maestro of the monologue takes the wizardly leader of Apple out to the digital woodshed in his latest solo show, a blisteringly funny, icily penetrating account of the extraordinary influence and not-so-benign impact the man and his company have had on the world.

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” is hands-down Daisey’s most effective performance yet, in a catalogue that includes such impressive pieces as “The Last Cargo Cult” and “If You See Something Say Something.” What sets apart this new work at Woolly Mammoth Theatre is Daisey’s subtler grasp of the subject at hand: our obsession with acquiring 21st-century gadgetry while remaining blissfully ignorant of the dark facts of how it might be manufactured overseas.

As a self-professed “Apple fanboy” — “I love the smell of a new piece of technology,” he declares — Daisey entertainingly outlines a landscape of his own obsession with cellphones and MacBooks over the course of nearly two hours. His habit is such that he’d be a candidate for a spinoff addiction reality TV series — “Intervention: Handheld Devices.” He tells us, for example, that relaxation for him is breaking down his expensive laptop into its 40-odd component parts and meticulously putting them all back in place.

What’s important about this compulsive credential is that it not only lays the foundation for his authority on the topic, but it also inspires some of the best writing for the stage Daisey has ever done. Whether he is ruminating on the hellish torments of PowerPoint presentations or describing the horrific dormitory conditions for Chinese electronics workers, who sleep in stacks “like Jenga puzzle pieces,” the narrator employs language that is richly but not overly ornamented, and at all times emotionally accessible.

Sometimes, admittedly, Daisey’s emotions can get the better of him, in both hilarious ways and less useful ones. His ability to get his dander up is almost endearing: It has become such a visceral part of his makeup that he’s developed a theatrical vocal reflex for it, a kind of yelp of anger that comes out like a furious sneeze. These momentary explosions are often accompanied by some choice, amusingly passionate epithets.

But passion can overtake craft, as it does at present in the final several minutes of the monologue, when Daisey’s sense of outrage at the injustices he encountered while reporting out “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” lapses into righteous indignation. Having recounted for us some shocking vignettes of how Apple products are made in an industrial zone in Shenzhen, China, he can’t resist hammering home a sermon.

Are you a storyteller or an activist, Mr. Daisey? (He’s also a bit unfair, I think, in singling out the New York Times for not digging into the story.) It is admirable that the monologist wants to move us so that we might help make change happen; he even has ushers distribute pamphlets at the exit, explaining the “concrete steps you can take.”

The unfortunate side effect is that his role as our guide is compromised and he undercuts some of the journalistic and dramatic power of what’s come before.

Not, however, in anything close to a fatal way. Daisey lays out in clear, mesmerizing detail Jobs’s brilliant conquest of the computer industry, and the ways in which that changed our lives. (Case in point: a wonderful anecdote about how that innocuous accessory, the mouse, was born.) And you don’t have to know geek lingo to keep up: Daisey demonstrates a sharp facility here for reducing software culture to illustrative bites. Computer geeks are “like lowland gorillas: They fight for dominance.” Jobs is a control freak and a genius, but he’s not a micromanager, Daisey says. No, “he is a nano-manager.”

Like his clear role model, the late Spalding Gray, Daisey has cultivated a recognizable performance style, from which he does not deviate on this evening, astutely directed by his longtime collaborator (and wife) Jean-Michele Gregory. A big guy dressed in dark shirt and slacks, he presides with grandeur from behind a table, gazing out at us like some imposing professor of the dark arts.

He’s framed by set designer Seth Reiser’s intriguing backdrop, a black panel adorned with hundreds of light-emitting diodes that constantly change their linear patterns. The effect is both aesthetically pleasing and thematically relevant, for Daisey eventually will clue us in to what he sees as the sinister origin of the ubiquitous lamps.

The narrator is as keenly observant about his visit to the closely guarded factories of Shenzhen — a world he says he infiltrated through a bit of subterfuge — as he is about Jobs’s secretive universe. And the manner in which he links our dreamy devotion to Apple’s products to the devastatingly harsh realities of how they get to market will assure that you never look at your iPad or MacBook in quite the same way again.

Jobs, Daisey tells us, “is so good at making us need things we never knew we wanted.” And this agitated spinner of spoken arias has a gift for stories we didn’t know we needed to hear.

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs

Created and performed by Mike Daisey. Directed by Jean-Michele Gregory. Sets and lighting, Seth Reiser; dramaturgy, Miriam Weisfeld. About 1 hour 50 minutes. Through April 17 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. Visit www.woollymammoth.net or call 202-393-3939.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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