Review: Live Theater Returns, With Mike Daisey and His Beefs
The bedbug gambit is ironic; Daisey uses it to suggest how unprepared he and everyone else were for the worse disruptions that would come in 2020. Unfortunately, the “worse” is not fleshed out except in trivial ways that have the effect of deflating yet centering Daisey himself. The apartment in which he and his girlfriend are stuck “in captivity” is so small, he tells us, that he must work on the deck, sometimes in the rain. They have to learn to plan and make their own meals, something people move to New York specifically not to do.
Small talk has rarely seemed smaller. And even as the story grows to include Daisey’s delivering food in the spring, cheering the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the summer and phone banking for the November election — all admirable — he somehow winds up the star in each case. His self-deprecation is only a kind of chamois, polishing his brass.
For a monologuist, that’s a professional hazard. (He calls his calling “an exercise in mansplaining.”) But in previous works, Daisey has managed to use himself as a lens; here he is more of a mirror, reflecting his own obsessions, disappointments and, it has to be said, thin skin. Apparently, he is an underappreciated giant in a world of straw men.
In this self-promoting mode, I find him no more (or less) interesting than an old college chum who corners you at a party and doesn’t notice your eyes glazing over. In his social-critic mode — sniping at obvious targets like Donald J. Trump, whom he has pilloried elsewhere — I find him unexceptional; is it so revealing to refer to the ex-president’s last day in office as “Garbage Day”? As he feels his way through the sweaty dark toward a theme that just isn’t there, you begin to wonder whether his apartment ever cooled off.
But in his oracular mode, which though built on the bedbug story at the start doesn’t arrive until the end, he is outstanding. Connecting Covid-19 not only to ecological disaster but also to the pandemic of racism, he finally aims at antagonists worthy of his rhetorical big guns.
In language that is burnished and implacable — and, it seemed to me, less improvised but more alive than the rest of the show — he says that though the “plague was not a gift” it was an opportunity, a “dress rehearsal.” Noting that there’s “no vaccine for fascism,” he calls for a “refining fire” that will burn out the hate in our system.
These were startling and stirring words, the kind that hogtie your attention. They are worth having Daisey, and live theater, back for. Perhaps by the time he repeats the show, on May 9, there will be less of him and more of them.
What the Fuck Just Happened?
Repeated on May 9 at the Kraine Theater, Manhattan; frigid.nyc.