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Arts: The Ugly American Makes Himself Heard By KEN BULLOCK Special to the Planet

Friday July 29, 2005

When Mike Daisey begins his solo piece, The Ugly American, he is sitting at a table on the Thrust Stage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, facing the audience. He is sitting there at the conclusion, too. 

He uses gestures and expressions to illustrate his tale of studying acting in London on an overseas program of his “micro-Ivy League” college. Chalk marks for the table’s placement are visible on the boards. He shares some of the simplicity, but otherwise, none of the theatricality of his predecessors in solo performance, such as its pioneer, Emlyn Williams playing Charles Dickens. 

Mike Daisey plays himself. This, too, separates him from other solo performers who seem close to the traditions of burlesque and stand-up comedy, such as Barry Humphreys, who plays Dame Edna (among others), or Garrison Keillor (whom Daisey valorizes), slipping in and out of various roles as well as being the master of ceremonies, where stand-up began. 

Daisey, who calls himself a monologist, is also a book author, a writer for The New York Times Magazine and contributes commentaries to NPR’s “Day To Day.” His monologues are unscripted, and evolve as performed throughout his run. 

“Unlike so much theater, there is no illusion here,” he says. 

On the stage, Daisey plays the affable “hale fellow, well-met” of bar room lore, but with a more contemporary and somewhat detached attitude. Sometimes it’s as though he’s musing over what he’s saying. 

“They say that youth is wasted on the young,” he says, “they would say that, the fuckers!” Beginning with dissing Bernard Shaw’s famous line, and running the dozens on it to the tune of: “‘I had a wasted youth; I know so much more now’” and emerging with, “the essence of youth is in the misspending,” Daisey warns off would-be listeners who won’t understand, “people with TiVos ... who keep Day Planners, even in utero!” and launches his odyssey, from “a sordid love-affair with acting,” to imagining he’ll be greeted by the shades of Olivier and The Bard himself when he touches down on Old Blighty for training, “to be told I was special, and to feel something.” 

Instead, he’s sent off to see Heiner Muller’s Hamletmachine, “German Postmodern with a vengeance,” and finds himself hedging afterwards along with everybody else: “Interesting ... Challenging,” except for a jock who’s taken the program to party on continental daytrips, who shouts in a loud American voice all the way back in the tube, “Dude, it was boring!” 

From the picture of his acting coach, a “flinty, hawklike” woman, to his “audition” for an off-off fringe production in an abandoned suburban church abutted by council housing, where the director looks him over like a horse and pronounces, “You’ll do,” Daisey delineates his plunge from an aesthetic daydream into a nightmare made amusing in the retelling. 

His big scene, in the ultrafeminist restaging of a Caryl Churchill musical, leads to a torrid affair with the Welsh hooker actress who’s his scene partner. Pursuing his affair with the boozy, sexy, inscrutable Cymreis Tamsyn, he slips in his schoolwork, ending up returning to perform his “type—a fat, retarded” infantile creature in a pathetic school play project, only to be out of sync with his fellow actors’ pauses after the bad lines. 

Throughout, Daisey breaks his cool and his bemusement with raving tirades that are oddly glib and clipped, but otherwise reminiscent of a gentler Lewis Black. Yet his cool is genial, personable even, with a slight air of confiding something, obviously helped along by the deliberate spontaneity of his unscripted format. 

At times the autobiographical mode becomes banal, the raconteurishness chatty, a little like talk radio. The effect is like being told “I only read nonfiction” by a triumphant stranger at a cocktail party. Imagination can become a little clipped, too. 

There’s a great deal of sentimentalism to the anti-sentimental “plain speaking” pose this small-town Yankee takes the stage with, more false-naive than urbane in the unmounted snapshots he seems to be casually showing us. 

But his all-over good humor and self-deprecation (in the midst of potshots at various and sundry) win over the audience, some of whom are obvious repeat fans from his previous hits, 21 Dog Years and All Stories are Fiction (and his evolving new piece, Monopoly!, which will have a $5 show at the Rep on Sun. Aug. 14). Mike Daisey may be The Ugly American, but he’s a nice Ugly American. 


The Ugly American, created and performed by Mike Daisey, runs at the Berkeley Reperatory Theatre through Aug. 13. For tickets or information, call the 647-2949, or see