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If You See Something Say Something

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Mike Daisey
Photo by Kenneth Aaron.

If the mere title of Mike Daisey's new solo show at Joe's Pub, If You See Something Say Something, fills you with glee about the certain evisceration of a certain current inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, this is not the show for you. Not that President George W. Bush gets off easy, mind you. Beneath the 90 minutes of barely concealed contempt and unfoggy history that Daisey has compacted into a compelling evening, you'll find an implicit dislike for the President and many of his policies, including the mysterious junction of red tape and patriotism known as the Department of Homeland Security.

But it's Daisey's contention that the War on Terror and the terror under which it seems we constantly live was in the works long before the World Trade Center fell, or even before hanging chads became a national joke. So don't even expect to hear Bush's name for at least the first half of the show. He's but one part of a much larger story: From the development of the atomic bomb in Los Alamos, New Mexico, in the final phases of World War II through the chilliest parts of the Cold War, America's need to stand against any enemy - real or imagined - has long been inching toward becoming the rule rather than the exception.

Daisey weaves his compelling case from a variety of sources: the public record, or at least what minuscule portions of the Patriot Act he's been able to absorb; the work and writings of such influential men as Samuel Cohen (the father of the neutron bomb) and Bernard Kahn (author of On Thermonuclear War); and his personal experiences, ranging from his own brush with violation when he was pickpocketed while visiting Rome to his fact-finding mission to the Trinity test site in Los Alamos that taught him more about life and death in the Nuclear Age than he ever learned from books.

Under the direction of Jean-Michele Gregory, Daisey is careful to keep his natural abrasiveness at bay most of the time. The few instances when he releases it fully are shrewdly chosen, mostly in describing and decrying the proliferation of "security theatre" designed to make us feel safer without actually making us safer (a comparison of the numerical Defense Condition, or DEFCON, system to the color-coded terror alert system is particularly hilarious), or spitting out the checkered backgrounds of the various Secretaries of Homeland Security. His voice in these instances, taking on the ring of a constricted, helium-infused bark, is a piercing embodiment of the anger and helplessness these issues so frequently inspire.

When he pulls back, however, he's even more effective. His stories about how the Founding Fathers' revolt against the British might be considered terrorism today, how George Washington warned against the delusional effects of monarchical rule, or how Dwight Eisenhower warned in his farewell address against the military-industrial complex are positively conspiratorial, as if he's passing on devastating secrets under the cover of darkness. He even relates his experience with Trinitite, the glassy material created at Los Alamos during the 1945 atomic bomb testing, with the come-hither insinuation of a campfire-lit ghost story that just might be true.

Its basis in established fact might be the scariest part of If You See Something Say Something. Daisey offers you few opportunities to wrap yourself in the deceptively warming idea that all this couldn't happen here or now - because it already has. He does, however, achieve the most important goal: He doesn't create any new paranoia, which gives his show exactly the atmosphere of non-exploitative legitimacy it needs.

Daisey both convinces you of the depths of our current mess, and points to what's needed to help us survive it: information. This weapon, he argues, is one that neither the government nor terrorists can take away, though it only works if you own it. His show, as funny as it is provocative, is one heck of a sales pitch.

If You See Something Say Something
Through November 30
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Public Theater

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