Playwright Sean Devine must be thanking the political gods right now.
Thursday night, ACT Theatre world-premiered, Daisy, a play based on the true story of marketing firm Doyle Dane Bernbach's creation of the first negative political TV ad. The weirdly avant-garde commercial, which was made for Lyndon B. Johnson's campaign against Barry Goldwater in 1964, shows a little blond girl picking flower petals off a daisy only seconds before she gets blown to smithereens by a nuclear bomb.
The ad is so legendary that politicians today still reference it all the time. BEHOLD:
And here's a Clinton ad that just came out a few days ago:
Fear through the eyes of babes, except in the Clinton commercial the nuclear warhead going off in the eye of the child is Donald Trump.
Okay, but the reason why Devine might be thanking the gods is that, though he didn't mean for it to be when he started working on it years ago, Daisy serves as a piece of compelling, dramatic commentary on the 2016 Trump vs Clinton Hate-Vote Election™, which means his play is relevant in a very obvious way that people like.
Here's the state of the Johnson/Goldwater battle the moment we enter it in Daisy: A radical republican candidate who advocates for extremism, doesn't exactly disavow his KKK supporters, and threatens rash military action is running against a hawkish democratic candidate who doesn't do too well on the TV, is sort of reluctant to adopt progressive platforms, and needs to win in a landslide to avoid embarrassment. There are ideological (and physical) differences between Goldwater and Trump, in that Goldwater actually had an ideology, but otherwise 2016 and 1964 basically rhyme.
In the play, Clifford Lewis (Tré Cotten), a campaign worker for President Johnson, hires Doyle Dane Bernbach to make TV ads. Aaron Ehrlich (played by Bradford Farwell, whose constant hyper-intensity prevented his character from projecting any kind of depth) is the paranoid and accidentally-but-not-really racist producer who thinks of risks in megatons. Louise Brown (Kirsten Potter) is the genius copywriter who has to put up with casual and not-so-casual misogyny from co-workers, especially from Sid Myers, who is played by Connor Toms. Louise lapses into a prophetic seer mode—as if she were afflicted with a vision from on high—when the team discusses a pitch. Then there's Tony Schwartz (Michael Gotch), oddball sound savant and avant-garde marketing guru whose brain chemistry restricts his movement to a few square city blocks. His bizarro sonic field research provides the seed material for what will become the ad that helped to defeat Goldwater.
Despite a slightly predictable script and some heavy-handed directing choices from John Langs, all the science-y stuff and big ideas about the way the body responds to language and images make Daisy more than just a particularly well-timed dive into the unfortunately relevant presidential campaigns of Johnson and Goldwater.
More than once, Louise articulates the play's central question: Do the ends (electing Johnson / avoiding electing a man prepared to use "low yield" nuclear weapons in Vietnam) justify the means (reducing televisual political discourse to bomb tossing)? She desperately wants to do the right thing and not go negative, to engage with policy and substance, but all that changes once Goldwater finally secures the nomination over the more moderate Nelson Rockefeller.
Langs answers Louise's question in the affirmative by really playing up the moments in the script that most resonate with the Trump "campaign." At the show I saw, Clifford Lewis says, "He may have been the fool in April, but he's the nominee in June." It's a line. The actor (Cotten) knew it was a line and read it as such, raising his voice just a little before entering a state of prepared silence. The audience poetry-moaned. They moaned again every time there was an obvious overlap between Trump and Goldwater. Of course Langs would want to play up the parts of Devine's play that make it relevant, but the gesture doesn't give the Lou's principled stand for reasoned discourse its due.
About 30 percent of the jokes were funny, but all of them landed on the opening night audience. The groan-inducers too neatly imitated the quick and witty style of Howard Hawks movies. But when the jokes packed a convincing political punch, they were good, as when Louise lays out this burn on her co-worker: "You put in your two cents, I put in a nickel, and somehow you walk around with seven cents!"
In TedTalk-like monologues that break up the political narrative of the play, Schwartz describes the nature of human sensitivity to aural and visual stimulus. Our brain actively co-constructs our reality, and the people who are trying to trick us into voting for them or paying their mortgages by buying their tchotchkes know that. Their most successful campaigns don't control our minds—they reflect our feelings back at us. We don't go with the product/president we understand, we go with the product/president who makes us feel most understood.
Schwartz’s monologues provided some of the most compelling moments in the show, but the most praise should be heaped upon video/projections designer Tristan Roberson for animating Shawn Ketchum Johnson's giant wall of televisions, and to the tech staff in general for (mostly!) smoothly executing ambitiously complicated cues.