Mike Daisey’s latest one-man show is the closest thing to standup that he’s ever performed — in part because his subject is someone many regard as a national joke.
A vulgar and potentially dangerous joke, to be sure, as newspaper editorial pages across the country and a lot of ordinary folk have been pointing out for months. And so in “The Trump Card,” a scabrously funny monologue still in need of some narrative enrichment and streamlining, the voluble Daisey finds a useful and entertaining receptacle for the outrage that he summons so gleefully from his spleen.
As in other of his well-woven monodramas that have been performed, like this one, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, Daisey mixes in history and personal memory in an effort to frame a larger social or political theme. “The Last Cargo Cult,” for instance, was the tale of a trip to the Pacific island of Vanuatu that also served as a critical examination of the export of American capitalism; “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” turned Daisey’s own obsession with technology into a damning exposé of Apple’s treatment of Chinese labor. That show seemed an especially inspired creation until it was revealed, via NPR’s “This American Life,” that events Daisey described as happening to him in China actually hadn’t.
“The Trump Card” ran last week at Woolly for a few workshop performances during a national theater conference in Washington (and to which the writer-performer invited reviewers). It’s one of the first of what will no doubt be a wave of theater pieces seeking to contextualize a mold-breaking political year. Seated, customarily, at a table with a few sheets of yellow legal paper, a glass of water and a washcloth to dab his brow, Daisey is armed again, too, with a broader insight to impart, in this case, having to do with the ascendance of The Donald and its connection to a web of malicious and ridiculous events. The malice arises from a moneyed background with an ugly, allegedly racist, root system; the ridiculous emergence from the crass American populism of trends like reality television; and semi-comical figures such as Sarah Palin.
Some of the material comes perilously close to headlineskimming; with the assistance of his astute director, Isaac Butler, Daisey could tighten the sections that have been well-documented by the media, such as a long riff on Roy Cohn, the rabid McCarthy-era lawyer said to have schooled The Donald in the fine arts of bullying and mendacity. Daisey excels here — despite trouble in this regard in the past — when he’s doing firsthand reporting, as when he tells of his father, a yard-sale buff, sending him an ironic treasure: an edition of Trump, the board game.
Daisey’s deft fashioning of the link between the mind-set of Trump and the rules of Trump — a game so simple-minded that the monologist likens it to “Monopoly for Dogs” — is one of the evening’s crowning comic achievements; his description of the game-playing party he throws, catered with “Trump” steaks, or steak, anyway, on which he has slapped “Trump” stickers, is a platter of mischievous joy.
The show needs more of this kind of Daisey-on-the-scene. (A visit to Cleveland this summer for a certain convention might provide just the kind of material to make this a truly priceless account.)
Still, the free-floating, incredulous contempt suffusing “The Trump Card,” recalling the comedically sophisticated musings of an in-the-know satirist of another era, Mort Sahl, is in itself welcome at this unsettling moment. Because, more than anything else, what we all really want to do is vent.