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.")

Such moments of nostalgia and excitement have become expected at Broadway Originals, traditionally one-third of Town Hall's Broadway Cabaret Festival. Now in its seventh year, the annual trio of concerts created, written and hosted by Scott Siegel will continue on October 22nd with a concert by Elaine Stritch and conclude with A Tribute to Judy Garland and the Art of American Dance, featuring Lorna Luft and Susann Stroman, on October 28th.

This edition of the show, directed by Scott Coulter, stretched back as far as 1958, with Yvonne Constant giving her rousing rendition, in both French and English, of a popular tune she performed in La Plume de Ma Tante, "One of Those Songs." In another classic re-creation, Lorraine Serabian ended the concert with her thrilling "Life Is" from Zorba. Earlier on, she explained how she was originally a chorus member who was understudying the role of The Leader when the show was in rehearsals, but was graduated to her featured part by the first out of town preview. Now of the age where should could play Zorba's leading lady, Serabian gave a saucy performance of a number introduced in the show by Maria Karnilova, one of Kander and Ebb's great story-telling songs, "No Boom Boom."

Barnum's Marianne Tatum displayed her still-lovely soprano with "Love Makes Such Fools of Us All," and vamped comically with "L'Amour, Toujours L'Amour" from her Drama Desk nominated performance in The Three Musketeers.

Though the great impressionist Marilyn Michaels is not especially known for musical theatre, she did star in the national tour of Funny Girl and belted out a socko "Don't Rain On My Parade." She followed with a pair of hilarious routines from her gig in Catskills On Broadway, where she sang Rogers and Hart's "Manhattan" with a series of pin-point impersonations (Dinah Shore, Joan Rivers, Diana Ross, Bette Midler and even Jackie Mason) and performed a condensed version of The Wizard of Oz, mimicking Judy Garland, Bert Lahr, Billie Burke and, of course, the representatives of The Lollipop Guild.

A pair of trios were reunited. Crazy For You's Manhattan Rhythm Kings (Tripp Hanson, Brian M. Nalepka and Hal Shine) lent their harmonies once again for "Bidin' My Time" and "The Real American Folk Song Is a Rag." Caroline, Or Change composer Jeanine Tesori temporarily replaced music director John Fischer at piano to accompany her musical's "Radio Ladies" (Ramona Keller, Marva Hicks and understudy Vanessa A. Jones) in "Salty Tears" after recalling how director George C. Wolfe used to tease her about her "Church Lady" singing voice when she played new songs for him. Their performance was dedicated to the beloved Broadway performer, the late Alice Playten.

More memories were provided by Bob Stillman ("Drift Away" from Grey Gardens), Sarah Uriarte Berry ("Safe In The City" from Taboo), Daisy Eagan ("The Girl I Used To Be" from The Secret Garden), Jesus Garcia & Ben Davis ("O Mimi tu piu non torni" from La Boheme), Andrea Frierson ("The Human Heart" from Once On This Island) and, in the 11 o'clock spot, Alexander Gemignani's beautifully delicate performance of Les Miserables' "Bring Him Home."

Photos by Genevieve Rafter Keddy: Top: Tammy Grimes; Bottom: Marilyn Michaels.

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