Mike Daisey’s life before wartime


By Jennifer DeMeritt

Mike Daisey has a gigantic head. In his new one-man show at the Public Theater, his expressive face, glowing baby pink or flamingo red, mirrors his explosion of ideas on everything from the sensation of his wife in his arms to the “ecstatic dirtiness” of the New York City subway system. Playing this week as part of the Under the Radar festival of new theater, “Invincible Summer” is ostensibly about Daisey’s life during the summer before September 11, 2001, but it also includes digressions about the dreams of cities, Polish wedding toasts, and the history of the MTA to create a story that is bigger, messier, and far more rewarding than mere autobiography.

Half the fun of Mike Daisey is watching him spin out a tangle of ideas and wondering how he’ll lasso them into a coherent story. He works from an outline, not a script, and he free-forms the words in each performance, a method that gives him the loose spontaneity of great standup and the kinetic force to fill a room as large as the Public Theater. This performance style has earned him a reputation as one of the best storytellers working today, and a legion of avid fans. He has created more than a half-dozen, long-form solo shows, including “Great Men of Genius,” “Monoploy!,” and “21 Dog Years,” which, as he tells us in “Invincilbe Summer,” later became a book and was his reason for moving from Seattle to New York in the summer of 2001.

In “Invincible Summer,” as in most of these shows, he doesn’t tell a linear narrative but presents a series of loosely related historic factoids, comedic set pieces, and scenes from his life. In this sprawling structure, his ideas have plenty of room to run around and play with each other. Thus, a digression about the number of men killed while building the subway system echoes in the background when he talks about the war in Iraq, and his joke in the beginning of the show about a Polish wedding toast (“Don’t go to bed angry — stay up and fight!”) comes back at the end with a completely different meaning.

He leaves a few loose ends dangling — we never find out why his wife was crying at the beach that day, and the bit about Katz’s Deli clearly has no purpose but to make us pee laughing — but he pulls most of them into a convincing thematic web. After such a far-reaching meander, the final tying-up bit feels like a yank, but he’s spent enough time planting seeds about patriotism (remember it really means father-ism) and the enterprise of civilization to just about earn his big oratorical firebomb at the end.

He tells us, with unabashed cornball sincerity, that he believes in family and justice, and that he thinks President Bush deceived the country for the sake of an unjust war. A political agenda can flatten all the nuance out of a piece of art, but it can also elevate it from passing entertainment to greatness.

Daisey certainly has the talent and the fervor to achieve greatness. When he describes the human remains in the dust cloud that floated into his neighborhood after September 11, “where they were breathed into our bodies, found purchase, and came to rest,” he reaches for poetry. Whether audiences take this as poetry or a manipulative play on their emotions might depend on how weary they are of September 11 stories (we’ve had five years of them, after all) and whether they agree with Daisey’s opinion of current events. “Invincible Summer” isn’t perfect, but it’s still one of the best solo performances we’re likely to see this year. And if there’s a faint whiff of ham about this show, well, the times are calling for it.