THE FANTASTICKS: Good acting makes the radishes grow.
“Try to remember the kind of September/When life was slow and oh, so mellow,” sings El Gallo at the top of The Fantasticks (at Trinity Repertory Company through May 6). And that was a billow of nostalgia when it first wafted from the mouth of the long-running show’s abductor-for-hire in the waning days of the Eisenhower administration. In Invincible Summer (presented by American Repertory Theatre at Zero Arrow Theatre through April 29), Mike Daisey looks back from this side of a very different September, when American life, its innocence already much corroded since the heyday of The Fantasticks, was changed forever.
Daisey has, inevitably, been compared to Spalding Gray, who gleaned both entertainment and insight from his personal story. But Daisey will have more difficulty gazing at his navel; the rubber-faced monologuist is too round for a straight look down at his umbilicus. He is also, despite the Gray-derived armor of plain table and glass of water, a very different sort of storyteller: less ironic, neurotic, and disarming if no less curious, he juxtaposes rather than melds his private and public stories. Gray, an actor, turned himself into the character of Spalding Gray, wryly recording his self-reflexive journey. Non-actor Daisey, who works without a script (though he has an outline) and relies on wife Jean-Michelle Gregory to help guide his extemporaneous expostulations, filters less. Parts of Invincible Summer — which runs the gamut from the then newly minted New Yorker’s experience of September 11 to a marveling history of that metropolis’s subway system to Daisey’s anger at the disintegration of his parents’ marriage just as our national family seemed also to fall apart — are funny; others convey discomforting vulnerability and explosive rage, whether at the summer heat, the father who more or less hauled his offspring’s childhood into the back yard and set a match to it, or the Bush administration whose Iraq war Daisey initially supported. In truth, this black-clad Buddha comes across less as a performer than as a guy talking to you. At some times, the one-sidedness of the conversation seems earned, at others — as when he seems to assume a presumptuous if hapless ownership of 9/11 — not.
But Daisey, citing influences as diverse as Lewis Black and Martin Luther King, would be the first to tell you he is not Spalding Gray. For one thing, he’s more interested in looking into the filthy, democratic maw of the MTA than at the lint at his midsection. Whenever his material threatens to go places he doesn’t want to, he returns — with deliberate and dramatic abruptness — to the underground warren of trains, which the Maine-raised Seattle emigrant has come to see as a sort of teeming metaphor for the awe-inspiring if hopelessly begrimed civility of his improbable, egotistic adopted town. And New York’s historical quirks are only one of the many things that whet his interest. In 21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Amazon.com, his breakout piece, Daisey ponders his and our national obsession with getting rich in the shadow of the Internet. And Monopoly!, which he’ll perform at Zero Arrow Theatre May 1-5, brings together the war between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla over electricity, Microsoft’s anti-trust suit, the history of the board game, and the wolfing of the performer’s home town by Wal-Mart. Sounds like a lot to chew, but the guy’s got a big mouth.