While most 10-year-olds were devouring comic books or men’s magazines by flashlight, monologuist Mike Daisey‘s choice of under-the-covers reading was the Manhattan Project. Mr. Daisey’s obsession with the original Ground Zero and the atomic bomb has resulted in a piece of storytelling that brilliantly combines the personal and the prophetic.
How many times would you gladly agree to be in the company of someone who talks nonstop for nearly two hours, especially if that person is merely sitting at a plain wood desk, neatly turning over his notes scrawled on yellow sheets of lined paper, and dabbing at his face with a dark cloth from time to time?
Spalding Gray comes to mind, and Mr. Daisey shares with the late monologuist a cunning gift for storytelling, a wry sense of self-deprecation, and a uniquely American voice that mesmerizes.
“If You See Something Say Something” (the title comes from a New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority slogan) juxtaposes pithy observations about our Founding Fathers - who, Mr. Daisey notes, would be considered terrorists and subversives today - with a history of the Patriot Act and the Department of Homeland Security, which constitute the largest changes in the federal government in 60 years.
He also weaves in a fascinating narrative about the transformation of Sam Cohen, father of the neutron bomb, from hawk to hawker of the weaponry of peace, and his own story line concerning his pilgrimage to New Mexico’s Los Alamos, where the first nuclear weapons were developed and tested.
The Los Alamos thread is the strongest, ranging from hilarious descriptions of security measures and a visit to a spare bombs-parts store called the Black Hole to poignant thoughts about how that mushroom cloud bloomed both in the desert and in our collective consciousness. He is also daring enough to challenge the myths and mind-sets surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks and the shift in our country’s thinking and behavior after the attack.
Mr. Daisey is more bombastic than the Zen-calm, WASPy delivery that Mr. Gray immortalized, and his style sometimes runs to a caustic, Lewis Black or Sam Kinison-style rant.
Yet his look at our country’s fixation on defending itself against enemies real and feigned is searingly intelligent and funny. That in itself would be enough for a few entertaining hours, but Mr. Daisey ties everything together in a graceful, epic sweep that leaves you pondering whether the impulse to annihilate is bred in the bone - and whether vulnerability is a liability or simply the essence of what it means to be human.
WHAT: “If You See Something Say Something,” written and performed by Mike Daisey
WHERE: Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW
WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays. Through July 26
WEB SITE: www.woollymammoth.net
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS