Pushing Up Daisey: Mencken-Loving Critic’s Sputtering Sentimental Journey

heilpern how theater failed Pushing Up Daisey: Mencken Loving Critic’s Sputtering Sentimental Journey There’s a drama critic in every man (and woman, of course). Audiences can be pretty severe critics, and, in private, theater folk can be, too. An actor-writer by the name of Mike Daisey is a rarity, however: He goes onstage to criticize theater publicly.

And it pays off, apparently. Mr. Daisey’s How Theater Failed America has now moved from Joe’s Pub to the Barrow Street Theatre downtown, and judging by the enthusiastic response he received on a recent Saturday night, a lot of people are enjoying hearing him tell us how badly theater is doing.

He isn’t a happy critic, though; he’s a furious and sentimental one. He forgives theater for humiliating him (and all actors). Anyone who quotes H. L. Mencken in his program notes is the performer for me: “Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit upon his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.”

 

MR. DAISY WADDLES onstage dressed in black, and mops his brow with a black handkerchief as he sits ranting and shrieking and shvitzing at that cut-price altar of all theater monologuists—a desk with a glass of water. A short, self-described fat man of 35, Mr. Daisey bears a striking resemblance to Terry Teachout, a drama critic at The Wall Street Journal. But he’s a better critic than Mr. Teachout. He not only criticizes theater with the knowledge of a long-suffering insider, but he’s also scrupulously self-critical.

His opening words are very modest. “You should not have come here,” he announces balefully. “You already know this story.” That takes some chutzpah—but no more, as Alexis Soloski informs us wittily in The Village Voice, than the pronouncement of Sophocles’ Oedipus: “I have known the story before you told it all too well.”

“No, seriously, why did you come?” Mr. Daisey asks us sweetly. I often think that at the theater, too, though not quite so soon as Mr. Daisey does here. He even describes the title of his show as “dreadful.” That really surprised me. I’d gone to see How Theater Failed America because of the title.

Happily, Mr. Daisey soon had me laughing and involved in his story. Opening-night cast parties have gigantic amounts of cheese, he tells us, and the habitually impoverished actors hoard it. “We work for cheese!” he protests incredulously.

There’s no humiliation the actor does not endure. Actors are “professionals,” Mr. Daisey tells us edgily. “We obey.” It was how he found himself jerking off onstage in Kabuki makeup while playing the bishop in Jean Genet’s The Balcony. He was dutifully following the “vision” of his lunatic director.

His insider take on the lost soul of regional theater is telling: He rails, among much else, against “the freeze-dried actors” flown in from New York (though the repertory theaters in his native Seattle might disagree), and the elderly audiences. (“I hear the oxygen tanks hissing in the dark!”) He’ll hear no argument from me about his critique of the nation’s major nonprofit institutions, whose main theaters perpetuate safe fare and revivals at the cost of any risk and new writing.

“You see this black box,” he reports one major artistic director telling him guiltily. “That’s for you!”

Mr. Daisey names no names in How Theater Failed America—doubtless because he would like to work again. It nevertheless blunts his case against. Nor are his more sweeping arguments always convincing; they can be soupy and shrill (and he proposes no answers). His Oprah-like confessional detour to a serious battle with depression and an early suicide attempt chilled the audience.

It was theater that saved his life: A chance offer, another nutty challenge, held out hope and purpose for him in the wilderness, and it led to his decision to try his luck as a writer and performer. It’s been no picnic. But the American theater, I’m glad to say, did not fail Mr. Daisey.

 

A RECENT NEW musical, Glory Days, about four college freshmen returning nostalgically to their high school, closed on Broadway after its opening night. I didn’t review it principally because its novice composers from out of town—who are in their early 20s—had surely been criticized enough. If anyone was to blame for Glory Days, it was its opportunistic producers who brought it to Broadway.

The new musical Saved at Playwrights Horizons might have a different fate in store, but it’s not at all for me, and probably not for Mr. Daisey, either. It’s exactly what our nonprofit theaters should not be doing.

Produced with “enhancement money” from the for-profit production company Elephant Eye Theatrical, Saved has a blatant, bleary eye on a Broadway transfer. Based on the 2004 movie of the same name—a dud starring Mandy Moore—it’s meant to be a spoof of religious hypocrisy at an evangelical Christian school.

A virginal student becomes pregnant when she sleeps with her worried, handsome school friend in a forlorn attempt to prove to him that he isn’t gay. (Jesus, appearing to her in a vision, told her to do it, and all follows from that.) It’s meant to be fun, and perhaps an affectionate renegade like John Waters could have made it work. But this is a witless, sniggering production that can have a Jewish girl speaking in tongues for a cheap laugh. (She’s actually saying, “I have a hot pussy.”)

Directed by Gary Griffin, the miserable show has a threadbare set that looks like an anonymous hotel lobby with colored lights. (It’s designed by the usually excellent Scott Pask.) The lights flicker whenever a cell phone rings. The bland music and lyrics by the experienced and admired downtown artist Michael Friedman manage to sound more or less the same. (The book and additional lyrics are by Rinne Groff.) And a number of cast members, I regret to say, are about a decade too mature for their roles as frolicsome teens.

It’s always good to see a performer as fine and honest as John Dossett (he makes even the clichéd adult role of Pastor Skip appear dignified), and the appealing Julia Murney, who plays Lillian (the mom),
reminds us that she’s been seen far too little in musicals of late.

Let be, as old Hamlet says.

Enhancement money is nothing new in nonprofit theater nowadays. But the awesomely misguided Saved is reason enough for Playwrights Horizons to resist its allure.

jheilpern@observer.com