Mike Daisey's "How Theater Failed America" at Woolly Mammoth

Mike Daisey holds the world of theater to a high standard, and acerbically cuts it down.
Mike Daisey holds the world of theater to a high standard, and acerbically cuts it down. (By Kenneth Aaron -- Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company)
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By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, January 12, 2009

Mike Daisey repeatedly sticks his finger in his employer's eye during the one-man "How Theater Failed America," offering a scorched-earth critique of the dramatic world's rampant creative failure and moral hypocrisy.

He calls out major not-for-profit companies for gutless programming and caving in to a corporate marketing mentality. Instead of raising pots of money for new buildings, Daisey suggests (even while acting in Woolly Mammoth's handsome new space), artistic directors should be sticking to the regional theater movement's first principles: nurturing acting troupes.

Yet the show is better -- more varied -- than the unchained soapbox scold promised by its "graceless, bombastic title" (Daisey's words). "How Theater Failed America" is a funny, surprisingly supple performance about life in the theater, the ecstatic highs and the aching, humiliating lows, rendered here with explosive humor and a dark edge of tragedy.

Daisey's target appears to be ripe. Woolly Mammoth, which hosted Daisey's homeland security-themed "If You See Something, Say Something" last year, has organized three industry roundtable discussions during this show's two-week run, and Daisey amply sets the stage for debate.

He borrows a lot from the late monologist Spalding Gray. The wide desk, the rough notes on paper, the freedom to riff, the shapely literary arc and outrageous comic stories -- all of this comes from Gray's successful mold. (And like Gray's shows, Daisey's are directed by his wife, Jean-Michele Gregory.) Daisey keeps it fresh, though, thanks to his aggressive thesis and pugnacious style. Even sitting down he's a lively performer, breaking into an honest sweat five minutes in.

Daisey thrives on comic exaggeration, lampooning theater workers as earnest liberals clutching bran muffins at conferences and likening one unnamed artistic director to "a hyperactive badger as written by David Mamet." He mocks, he belittles, he shifts from profound whispers to profane roars. (He also has an all-pro scowl.) Again like Gray, he ultimately captivates the audience by revealing his own deeply personal stake in the subject. Theater, it turns out, is something of a lifeline.

That's partly why Daisey, who is the fiercest kind of true believer, holds theater to a high holy standard even as he fires off broad sarcastic jabs (how companies' literary departments faithfully encourage the hopeless mounds of play submissions, for instance) and crazy backstage tales from high school, college and the garage theater scene in Seattle. These reminiscences are like war stories, with actors forged in the fires of early struggle and mortification. The anecdotes are hilarious, especially his tales of against-the-grain directing at a high school festival and of acting in a mind-blowingly bad avant-garde Seattle show.

Too much inside baseball? Not really. As Daisey points out at the start, the audience has self-selected and declared an interest simply by showing up. "You already know this story, don't you?" he says softly, placing the blame for the unsatisfying state of the theater on everyone in the room.

Some critics have complained that "How Theater Failed America" doesn't utterly nail down its argument. (One reviewer said it smelled of sour grapes.) Some of its truisms -- say, importing "freeze-dried" New York actors -- aren't as true as they used to be, and plenty more go unexplored. To name one glaring example, Daisey might have delved into why solo artists are routinely given more license to be inflammatory than playwrights are.

But to insist that this show must fully answer its implied question misses the point. This is art, not an essay, despite the non-fiction trappings. Let the panels address the charges; Daisey's job is to grinningly lob his stink bomb. It's a good one -- above all it's fun -- and its effects ought to linger for a while.

How Theater Failed America, created and performed by Mike Daisey. Directed by Jean-Michele Gregory. About two hours. Through Jan. 18 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW. Call 202-393-3939 or visit

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