Review - The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs

"Do you really think Apple doesn't know?"

What makes that question so unsettling when Mike Daisey rather simply asks it of his audience is that the unspoken follow-up inquires if we really don't know. Sure, most Americans have some awareness of the less-than-worker-friendly conditions under which some of our foreign-manufactured products are made, but in his newest monologue, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, Daisey's description of the Foxconn Technology plant in Shenzhen, China, where iPads and iPhones are manufactured, can severely test one's consumer loyalty.

Part investigative journalist, part op-ed columnist, part borscht belt comic (It would not be surprising if his bloodline connected somewhere with that of Zero Mostel's.), Daisey's style of theatrical monologue doesn't vary, whether he's discussing Homeland Security (If You See Something, Say Something), international finance (The Last Cargo Cult) or, in this case, the human cost of improving our lives. Directed by his wife, Jean-Michele Gregory, Daisey sits at a desk for the entire performance, speaking extemporaneously from notes hand-written on sheets of paper. He speaks non-stop without a break (for 2 hours, in this case), and while not exactly a comedian, he's a large man of large gestures who tends to work in a stock repertory of vocal gags and broad facial expressions that act as spoonfuls of sugar to help his medicine go down. Sure, his evenings can usually stand a little trimming and some of his shtick can get a little predictable, but Daisey is a captivating story-teller, particularly in his ability to make personal tales resonate with universal relevance.

In The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which he's been performing for over a year and, by his report, has been revised only minimally since the death of Apple's co-founder the week before his previews at The Public Theater began, Daisey weaves together three separate narratives; one being his own personal obsession with Apple products ("I never knew I needed a laptop so thin I could slice a pastrami sandwich with it. But then I saw it and I wanted it.") and another being a brief history of Jobs' career and business strategy of discontinuing beloved older products and forcing upgrades to newer models (His sobs of disappointment at the loss of the iPod Mini are soon replaced by hungry yearnings for the iPod Nano.).

Those two greatly feed and give context to the third narrative, the story of how, posing as an American businessman, he had the opportunity to speak with some of the plant's 430,000 workers. He tells of children as young as twelve and thirteen working twelve-hour shifts (longer during rush periods), performing tasks so repetitive that their disfigured fingers make them unsuitable for employment within ten years. He tells of the hellish existence in this self-contained city, where 25 enormous cafeterias are each continually packed with 10,000 workers and where nets are hung outside the buildings to curtail an outbreak of employees choosing to leap to their deaths instead of spending one more day at Foxconn.

Daisey never disputes the visionary achievements of Jobs, nor does he set him up as some abhorable villain. The point is more that Apple's extraordinary success was achieved through Jobs' capability to exploit a religion of consumerism that has fueled American technological advancements for the last hundred years. As audience members leave the theatre, ushers hand them sheets of paper listing the author's suggestions for individual steps they can take to limit their own contributions to the donation plate.

Photo of Mike Daisey by Joan Marcus.

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"I want you to know that the most exciting part I've received recently is my new knee."

That's how Tammy Grimes greeted the Town Hall audience on Sunday as she braced herself on a walker in her first public performance since replacement surgery; singing a trio from her Tony-winning stint 50 years ago as The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Her pipes still strong and expressive, that unique timbre once again brought tenderness to "My Own Brass Bed" and optimistic verve to her signature march, "I Ain't Down Yet." Sandwiched between them was "I'll Never Say No," which was introduced by her leading man, Harve Presnell. ("I'm going to sing Harve's song in Harve's honor... in Harve's key.")




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