Last weekend, a friend texted me: "Did you see the Mild Daisey show at the Rep?" He meant to ask if I'd seen the Mike Daisey show at the Rep, but his typo was accidentally apt. In Daisey's return to Seattle after his infamous monologue The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs blew up in his face, he seems like a slightly lost and off-kilter soul. His old bag of tricks (righteous indignation, naked truth-telling, vivid details) has been publicly and embarrassingly deconstructed. On This American Life, no less. So who is Mike Daisey—passionate speaker, unreliable narrator—now?
Last weekend's show was titled American Utopias (this weekend is a different show, about Ayn Rand), and it covered Disney World, Burning Man, and Occupy Wall Street. He visited the first two, but not the third. The show has all the Daisey hallmarks: observational comedy, withering criticism (a dash for himself, mostly for others), and throaty bursts of shouting. The ingredients were there, but he did not seem like his former aggressively confident self.
Which only stands to reason: One year ago, his monologue about working conditions in electronics factories in China took a bad turn when curious journalists figured out that Daisey had fabricated its most striking facts and then systematically lied about it. Daisey responded with a general tone of What did you expect? I'm a theater artist. All stories are fiction. But that was a hard sell for some of us who think it's one thing when you're talking about your childhood memories and quite another when you're claiming to pry the scales from our eyes because only you know the truth about a large-scale, real-world injustice. Still, Jobs kicked open an important debate about consumption and labor, and some of us (who seem to regret his dissembling even more than he does) still want his career to have a second act.
As of this weekend, we seem to be in the intermission between those two acts. Daisey is recalibrating. His observations seemed stale and flat-footed: Disney World is a bizarrely detailed consumerist fantasyland, Burning Man is disorienting and anarchic, Occupy revealed that power fears democracy and will break laws with impunity to suppress it.
That's old news. And between the staleness of the information and the wobbliness of its presentation, American Utopias seems like the work of a performer who was publicly neutered and is still trying to find another pair of balls. They're out there, Mike. We want you to find them. Just keep looking—America is, after all, the land of reinvention.