Mike Daisey is a keen cultural observer with a ruthless streak. In "American Utopias," the neo-Spalding Gray's latest monologue, Daisey even takes on the "It's a Small World" ride at Walt Disney World. "It looks like a 1950s game show threw up on itself," ," he observes, puckishly. Next time I'm there, I won't be able to get that out of my mind. Daisey's little takedowns have a certain stickiness to them. So does the performer.
This latest work of Daisey's (presented by the MCA in collaboration with the Chicago Humanities Festival) is what you might a trifurcated travelogue. Daisey interweaves his observations on the Burning Man festival, wherein thousands of self-actualizing hipsters converge annually on the Black Rock Desert in Nevada for a week of various righteous, sensorial activities, with his thoughts on the Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zuccotti Park in Manhattan, and with his experiences running frantically from ride to ride in Lake Buena Vista, Florida with a group of Disney obsessives from New Jersey. The connection between Burning Man and Disney works very well — both of these places are filled with Americans seeking some kind of release from their normal everyday existence, yet the one celebrates sex, drugs and free love while the other, to paraphrase Daisey, commodifies hope and comforts us that we're good parents, after all. Daisey is out of his natural habitat in both of these places, and that serves him well as he takes us from the bizarre human car washes at Burning Man to the comforts of watching the fireworks at Epcot and knowing that they will blaze just the same on the following night, a moving reminder that the republic still stands.
The Occupy material, though, is more problematic. For starters, Daisey did not actually go to Zuccotti Park before the protest was removed by the authorities. He spins that deftly into a segment on liberal guilt, but that lack of first-person reportage still gnaws away at this piece, which offers such a close experiential comparison of those other two experiences. The other issue bedeviling this long monologue at this juncture (it's a new work) is that Daisey never, for me, adequately explores the question of why we go to these so-called "American Utopias," or even what that term really means. The stuff on Disney's manipulations is astute — there is a superb sequence wherein Daisey discusses how much Disney advertising is there to make you feel like you are running out of time to take your growing kids to the happiest place on earth. The material on Burning Man's weird juxtaposition of the outlandish and the, well, geeky-sweet is similarly rich. But throw in the Occupy issues and Daisey's own relationship with all this, and you come to the conclusion that there is much work still to be done here.
And one other, other note. Daisey is, of course, recovering from a scandal surrounding the fictionalized elements of a previous show, "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" (which, for the record, I thought was superb). Daisey had sold that piece to the public and his presenters as non-fiction. At one point in this new show, he talks about waking up in New Jersey at 2:30 a.m. in the morning, hopping a plane in Atlantic City and being at the gates of the Magic Kingdom by 8 a.m. that morning. There is no way that could have happened (I looked into the flight schedules). At another moment, he talks about how the so-called Extra Magic Hours at Disney (for resort hotel guests) let his group arrive early and leave late on their first day. No, those Extra Magic Hours offer either an additional morning session, or an additional late-night opportunity, not both at once at the same park on the same day. Does this matter? It doesn't bother me; it's trivial, and this is a tall tale in the theater. Gray, another not-wholly-reliable narrator whom I loved for years, did much the same. Still, it would have been quite easy for Daisey to get this right and — this is the issue he seems to have — it would not hurt his storytelling as much as he seems to think. It's not that he has a prima facia obligation to tell the complete truth; it's more that when the truth is easily told, it is preferable because it does not pull you out of his story and give you such a remove from his astute analysis.
So. The show needs some cuts, should explicate its compelling broader themes more quickly and address them more directly, and would be better if it stuck to a chronology in which we can believe. But there's much of interest here for Daisey fans (and the Burning Man-curious). I especially liked hearing about his New Jersey family of Disney fans, all who love to throw big house parties. At those moments, Daisey comes the closest I've ever seen him come to expressing love.
When: Through Nov. 11
Where: Museum of Contemporary Art Stage, 220 E. Chicago Ave.
Running time: 2 hours
Tickets: $28 at 312-397-4010 or mcachicago.orgCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times