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The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Mike Daisey
Photo by Joan Marcus.

When Steve Jobs, the co-founder and CEO of Apple died on October 5, the outpourings of grief and loss from the millions of people who'd been touched by his work made it seem as though the man's legacy as Earth's guiding angel of technology was permanently secure. Now that our eyes have de-misted and, especially, now that Mike Daisey has opened his outstanding one-man show, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, at The Public Theater, a new and even more troubling thought can't help but cross the mind. Maybe Jobs got off easy?

If that sounds cruel, it's both unintentional and unavoidable. What Daisey and his director, Jean-Michele Gregory, have done with this piece is provide a corrective to the press coverage and fawning acclaim to someone who was elevated to the realm of heaven on Earth long before he actually passed away. Daisey's view of Jobs is of a brilliant visionary, yes, but also of someone who succumbed to the very pressures and failures he so despised in others. In other words, Daisey sees Jobs as a legitimately tragic figure who brought the world great joy and also, in his way, inflicted great pain.

Daisey has structured the brisk two-hour, intermissionless evening much as he has his previous monologues: alternating scenes of personal reflection and geopolitical context, all while he sits behind a table armed with only a glass of water and a stack of pages torn from a yellow legal pad. (Daisey performs all his shows extemporaneously, so he doesn't even have the benefit of a concrete script.) Yet the relationship between the two halves of the story is tighter and more satisfying here than it's ever been, and the sections merge so seamlessly that you won't recognize the full extent of the point until it's kicked you in the head.

This is what Daisey refers to as the "shifting of the metaphor," the way that your perception of the universe changes depending on what new information you're exposed to. He reveals this in the checkered history of Jobs, who began an intrepid salesman of his friend Steve Wozniak's miraculous coding, then proceeded up through the Apple food chain, losing his job as the company's head only to be reinstated later when it was realized that every successful company needs a crazy genius somewhere within it. Jobs's chief accomplishment, Daisey explains, was in getting us to crave things we never previously knew we couldn't live without.

Contrasting this is Daisey's description of his own trip to Shenzhen, China, and the factory where so many products by Apple and other tech companies are manufactured by hand. His exposure to the sheer scope of the campus—there are 25 cafeterias there, each of which serve 10,000 at a time—as well as the conditions that inspire suicide, leave workers crippled (and, sometimes, fire them as a result of those disfiguring accidents), and employ people as young as 12 in creating the products that so many in the West see as must-haves.

Yet until the closing seconds of the show, Daisey skillfully avoids specific preachiness. Even more than a by-the-numbers recitation of the seldom-heard details of Jobs's life and the negative impact of his policies on people thousands of miles away, the show explores Daisey's own addiction to Apple productions and how his desire implicates him in the abuses that so startle him. Daisey gradually morphs from a barely suppressed attitude of excitement and vigor to one of angered resignation: There's no way he could stop the wheels turning if he wanted to, and whether he even wants to is very much open to debate.

There's an impressive amount of depth here, as much in how Daisey establishes and maintains his own "geek" credentials as how he articulates the threats to many different freedoms that Jobs, intentionally or otherwise, encouraged. Though there is no shortage of laughs here, the show is powered by competing visions of righteousness that eventually intertwine to such a degree it's impossible to know for sure what's what. How, for example, are we supposed to feel about a factory worker whose hand was left a claw after a run-in with a machine, but who is just as entranced as everyone else in the world upon seeing a working iPad for the first time?

Twists like this, constantly taunting your desires and values and forcing you to question everything you've long taken for granted about living life in the ever more electronics-driven world, are commonplace. The show, like the blustering but neighborly Daisey himself, is rarely subtle, but it's an invigorating and unsettling starter for a conversation that should have been out in the open long before now. If you follow all this stuff closely, there's not a ton of new information to be found here. But through his own dramatic instincts and presentation, Daisey makes you realize—no matter how much you may want to avoid it—that Jobs's agony and ecstasy are your own as well.

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs
Through November 13
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Running Time: 110 minutes with no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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