At first, the jump between Mike Daisey’s last two projects seems ungainly and almost impossible. Barely four months after shaking the foundation of contemporary American theater with his incendiary How Theater Failed America, Daisey is now tackling homeland security, a much larger, more complex, and more important issue. Yet, there is a link between Daisey’s previous screed and the more meditative, politically-charged If You See Something Say Something.
That link is economics. In Mike Daisey’s world, every pursuit one can take in life, be it artistic expression or thermonuclear war, breaks down very simply into humanity’s weakness for money. It’s that streak of cynicism that ties Daisey’s critiques of contemporary life to the last 200-odd years of Western theater. Some would say Daisey’s fury towards capitalism and flirtation with Marxism are irrational and dated. But as current events should make all too apparent, every human desire reduces to the stability of his economic situation. That’s something both radical Marxists and staunch capitalists can agree upon.
Lest you think by the title that Daisey is at Joe’s Pub just to carelessly rant about having to take his shoes off at the airport, If You See Something Say Something spans the Cold War, World War II, the founding fathers, and present-day Los Alamos. Modern homeland security concerns make up a relatively small fraction of the play. Daisey’s main target is the military-industrial complex; his thesis states that “if you keep a standing army, and it doesn’t do anything, it will find something to do,” a statement he repeats twice, first in reference to Eisenhower, then to Washington, DC. When the military, government, and corporate sectors converge, Daisey doesn’t just see a rise in paranoia: he sees a systematic manipulation of human weakness to get everyone to conform to a system that ultimately benefits no one.
Daisey is smart enough not to detach himself from the situation. He spends much time talking about his childhood fascination with Los Alamos, the Bomb, and the cleansing power of Total Destruction. Always willing to refer to his painful, traumatic childhood as a loser in the bowels of Maine, Daisey depicts himself as a comic-book-loving outcast (he compares Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to Skeletor), harboring pre-Columbine fantasies of annihilating all the sources of his misery.
He finds a kindred spirit in Sam Cohen, the deeply troubled, morally tormented father of the neutron bomb, who invented that ultra-efficient weapon partly to appease a similar fantasy. Rage at the political economy of the military-industrial complex was the bait for Daisey to create If You See Something Say Something. It was that deeply ingrained sense of longing that forced Daisey to fall into the monologue hook, line, and sinker.
Ultimately, If You See Something Say Something will probably not have the same impact on the theatrical community that How Theater Failed America did, but it does cement Daisey’s status as the finest, most unique monologist of his generation. Daisey’s often been compared to Spalding Gray, but he’s got an an attitude straight out of the the Angry Young Man movement, comic books, and punk rock. As today’s foremost self-described fat, angry asshole, Daisey has a perpetual itch to provoke that he will probably never be able to escape (he probably doesn’t want to, either).
Yet he’s accomplished that rarest of feats: mixing rage and a revolutionary spirit with a well-grounded intelligence and an ability to promote discussion, maybe even solid changes. If You See Something Say Something may not be as fresh as Daisey’s 21 Dog Years or as directly vital as How Theater Failed America, but as long as there’s a place for a voice to point out the injustice and political outrage that so many feel but few articulate, there will be a place for Mike Daisey. With the economy what it is, that place may only get bigger.
If You See Something Say Something, written and performed by Mike Daisey; directed by Jean-Michele Gregory; lighting design by K.J. Hardy. Photos by Kenneth Aaron.
If You See Something Say Something is performed at Joe's Pub at the Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street). The show runs through November 30. For performance times and ticket information, visit www.publictheater.orgPowered by Sidelines