Mary McCarthy, writing in the introduction to Theater Chronicles, a collection of her reviews for the Partisan Review from 1937-1962, noted, “Our readers were young people, college and high school teachers, radicals and bohemians. Many of them, even if they lived in New York, were too poor to buy theatre tickets… yet they liked to read about it, from a distance, and see it taken to pieces… Our readers were ready to take it on assurance that the American theatre was not only bad, but very bad.”
I suspect that most readers of The L, not unlike many residents of New York City, even if they don’t fit into the poor and bohemian description, are not really the theater-going type. So it seems kind of odd that the monologist Mike Daisey’s latest show, How Theater Failed America, just transferred from a series of six Sunday evening shows at Joe’s Pub to a six-week run at the Barrow Street Theater in the West Village. Why would a show about the failure of American theater be popular enough to sustain a run when not very many smart, young things are all that interested in the theater anyway, and don’t seem to have been since at least the 1930s?
But then again, if you listen to Mary McCarthy, maybe it’s not really that surprising at all — people love to hear the theater taken to task, and it’s quite often an easy target. And Daisey knows it. He makes a point of it right at the outset of the piece, evoking the desire by many in the audience for him to “crucify” their favorite theatrical evils — Broadway musicals, the kids these days, the experimental, the not experimental, the reviewers, The New York Times, and on and on.
But Daisey takes aim at something other than the crucifixion of theatrical products. His real target is us, i.e. anyone making, viewing or passing judgment on the theater. Secondly, and much more vocally, the regional theater movement. A movement that, like its biggest funders, is of the Baby Boom generation. Born in the early 1950s, the thing has now grown gray and fat, spending indiscriminately, with the gutless assumption that the money will just magically keep coming in even after the funders die, that somehow their own children will manage to pay off their outsized debts. Daisey is interested in taking regional theater back down to size, reminding it of its original prime mover — the idealistic urge to train and nurture local theater artists and build committed and long-term relationships not only with those artists but also with the audience.
The play’s structure is what has almost become a classical form these days: a memoir as monologue, interwoven with social commentary or ideas. In this, Daisey mimics one of the most tried and true monologists of recent history, Spalding Gray. It’s a bit disconcerting how much of Gray’s shtick Daisey has appropriated, down to the untouched glass of water on the expansive wooden table and the talk of serious depression coupled with images of suicide. But just because the form isn’t new doesn’t mean he can’t say anything interesting within it. And Daisey is hardly the first adopter of Gray’s style.
In the end, what’s most interesting about this play is that it’s asking not only those who produce art but also those who choose to see it (and by implication those who choose not to) what the value of the thing is, and why sustaining it is not only important but useful for society. And that’s a question that can’t be asked enough.