As someone who didn’t so much tap into the zeitgeist as bend it to his will, Steve Jobs understood the importance of timing. Which is why I think even he would have appreciated the quirk of chronology that has allowed Mike Daisey’s Apple-themed monologue The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs to open in New York mere weeks after his death. What was previously a critical examination of a man and his company morphs into a statement on his legacy, an extended, often disapproving eulogy encompassing both Jobs’ visionary achievements and his significant flaws.
Daisey has made changes to the piece since his subject’s passing, but he pulls no punches and has added little padding to his critique. The format is simple, sleek, and effective — not unlike an Apple product — beginning in darkness and an almost biblical use of the company’s trademark start-up sound. As he does with all his monologues, Daisey spins his extemporaneous storytelling while seated at a table empty save for a handkerchief, a glass of water, and a handwritten outline. The handkerchief is for the sweat that inevitably pours from Daisey’s brow, since his style tends to be a few clicks more animated than that of, say, Spalding Gray. The water is for replenishing that lost hydration. The outline he uses as a springboard for his stories, both historical and personal, which wind together and often head off on brief tangents before returning circuitously to the piece’s main narrative: Apple’s Janus-faced division of those who buy their products and those who make them.
He makes it clear from the start that he is no knee-jerk detractor. Rather, he has been a rabid fan of the company, a ”worshiper at the Church of Apple,” since his family purchased an Apple II when he was a child. But an encounter with a few photos accidentally left undeleted on an iPhone, photos of the factory in China where the devices are produced and packaged in their antiseptic white boxes, put a chink in his faith. In an effort to satisfy his curiosity (and track down new stage material, no doubt), Daisey traveled to the industrial city of Shenzhen and the incomprehensibly enormous plant where many of Apple’s products are assembled by hand by workers as young as 12 years old toiling long hours in poor conditions.
Daisey’s anger at what he found in Shenzhen is more than evident. He encountered the people who make the gadgets we pretend sprang fully formed from Jobs’ balding head, and his descriptions are full of enough indignation and frustration to hush the audience as they guiltily trace the outline of the iPhones in their pockets. The fact that he is able to get us laughing again only minutes later is impressive. The piece’s greatest flaw, though, is its inability to connect the dots between Apple’s public image and its corporate misdeeds to show why it deserves to be singled out. It’s almost impossible to find an electronics company that doesn’t operate in a similar fashion, and Daisey has a hard time delineating why Jobs in particular was any more culpable than his peers. Still, Daisey’s ability as an improvisational rhapsodist is enrapturing, and in the end, he is relatively fair-minded. Even those who keep the Apple faith will find something of interest in the words of this apostate. B+
(Tickets: PublicTheater.org or 212-967-7555)