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Review: 'How Theater Failed America' at the Kirk Douglas Theatre

March 19, 2009 |  1:06 pm

Mike_daiseyHere’s a sure-fire box-office draw: A man sitting at a wooden table delivers a two-hour monologue in which he bemoans the decline and corruption of the great institution we know as the American theater. Even for those of us invested in the stage as an art form, the academic setup sounds deader than poor Yorick’s skull.

So what’s remarkable about performer Mike Daisey is his ability to turn a potentially tedious whine-fest about a depressing subject into something funny, intelligent and captivating. His one-man show “How Theater Failed America,” which runs through Saturday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, delivers a serious message in the form of a hilarious and sometimes raunchy solo tour de force.

Daisey stays behind a table for the entire evening, his only props being a glass of water and a handkerchief to wipe his perspiration. With single-minded intensity, he attacks the absurdity and hypocrisy behind a range of theater-related subjects including arts funding, declining ticket sales, corporate think and even critics. Throughout the show, he weaves in embarrassing anecdotes from his own stage career -- his story of performing in a garage production of Jean Genet’s “The Balcony” is as gross as it is illuminating about surviving small-theater hell.

As a performer, Daisey is part comedian, part brutal truth teller. He strongly resembles the late Chris Farley both physically and in his tendency to burst into spasms of deranged wackiness. (You can practically chart his blood pressure spiking and falling throughout the evening.) Daisey’s liberal deployment of the F-bomb clears the ground of any hint of cultured pretension -- he’s an unrepentant vulgarian who takes a low-brow approach to discussing the high-brow arts.

“How Theater Failed America,” which originated last year at Joe’s Pub in New York, is too broad in its attacks to make much of a lasting impact. This ambitious show implicates everyone from timid artistic directors to complacent audiences for the growing cultural irrelevance of the theater. Most of this we’ve heard before and the show can’t always locate a fresh angle on old news.

Daisey isn’t so much the Howard Beale (“I’m as mad as hell …”) of the American theater as he is a Jon Stewart-esque commentator whose righteous anger and sense of humor are fundamentally inseparable. His personal stories are the best parts of the show because they meld his anger, sarcasm and goofiness into a magnetic and unclassifiable package.

The show is the perfect fit for the new DouglasPlus series, which seeks to make theater more appealing to younger audiences through low-priced tickets and more adventurous subject matter. Non-theater buffs might find Daisey’s monologue too inside baseball at first, but thanks to deft direction by Jean-Michele Gregory, the show brings out the comedy and low-humor quotient of the performer’s personality.

Only someone who truly loves the theater could complain so much about it. Daisey rants about every little thing and then unearths more to moan about. (In a way, he’s the ideal fusion of theater performer and theater critic.)

His tough love is often difficult to take, but it’s never bitter. In fact, there’s a stealth optimism coursing through the show. Daisey dreams of a kind of theater that takes risks and speaks the truth to power. To his ample credit, he leads by example.

--David Ng

How Theater Failed America,” Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday only. $20. (213) 628-2772. Running time: 2 hours

Photo: Mike Daisey. Credit: Craig Schwartz


 
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