American theater is in such dire straits and so unrelated to our daily lives, it makes print media seem like a Twitter update in comparison. How did live theater become the cultural equivalent of the pay phone? Gifted monologist Mike Daisey, who wowed audiences last summer with his brainiac “If You See Something Say Something,” takes on this taboo topic with scorching anger, humor and heart in his solo piece, “How Theater Failed America.”
Mr. Daisey does not deliver his dire pronouncements from on high - from the beginning, he mans up and admits that he is as guilty of killing theater for the average person as any artistic director who programmed a season that included a yearlong salute to Sartre, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” during Black History Month, and, as an attempt to pander to young audiences, a rap version of “Private Lives” featuring runners-up from “A Shot of Love With Tila Tequila” - and then wondered why the shows played to empty houses.
“We did. We failed America.” Mr. Daisey states before launching into a two-hour comic rant on self-immolating theater institutions, the donor-driven mania for colossal cathedrals of culture that wind up being artistically vacant, and the notion that regional theaters have gotten better than any corporation at outsourcing jobs.
He blames regional theaters for making actors the latter-day Okies, roaming from one gig to the next with the job security and pay rate of the Joads. He blames management for creating top-heavy institutions with huge marketing and development staffs and small or nonexistent companies of actors, writers and artistic talent. He blames a lack of community within the theater and little or no connection to the public at large.
Mr. Daisey also blames himself for falling in love with acting in college and doing anything he could to stay in theater and keep performing. His invective is interspersed with clear-eyed reminiscences about his career that are at times hilarious (youthful idealists who started their own businesses will howl at his anecdote about forming a repertory company, “Theater on the Pond,” in the wilds of eastern Maine).
Painfully revelatory is his descent into the unrelenting grayness of depression and what brought him back to life, helping a local high school win a regional one-act play festival.
His solution to shrinking audiences and a staggering lack of interest by most Americans seems charmingly naive - bringing back the repertory system with companies of actors and artistic teams who make art together. That may create a sense of community within the theater, but will it fill empty seats?
That theater is worth saving (if for no other reason than to give critics somewhere to go at night) is a given. The tough question Mr. Daisey asks - and no theater head wants to hear in this lousy economy - is how do we move from a cultural climate of fear and allergy to change to revitalizing an art form so that is has a future and not merely a fabled past.
“How Theater Failed America,” created and performed by Mike Daisey
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW
8 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, 2 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Through Jan. 18.
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS