Theater & art

Stage Review

Pondering drama and deceit in ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy of Mike Daisey’

Jeff Zinn in “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Mike Daisey’’ in Wellfleet.
Robert Kropf
Jeff Zinn in “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Mike Daisey’’ in Wellfleet.

WELLFLEET — The first words out of Jeff Zinn’s mouth are “Hi. My name is Mike Daisey.’’ A bell immediately sounds. “OK, that’s a lie,’’ Zinn says.

That bell is heard often at Harbor Stage Company during Zinn’s performance of “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Mike Daisey.’’ It’s Zinn’s adaptation, with trenchant commentary, of “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,’’ a monologue by Daisey that drew national attention earlier this year when it was found to contain fabrications.

The cumulative effect of this auditory punctuation is devastating, given that the chimes resound every time Zinn recites a line that was found to be inaccurate in the original. It’s fitting, too, because Zinn’s mashup seems to be an attempt to make a little noise amid what he sees as the relative silence of the theater community about Daisey’s transgressions.


There is also a timeliness to the production that Zinn could not have anticipated, thanks to the resignation last week of New Yorker magazine writer Jonah Lehrer, after it was reported that his recent book on creativity includes made-up quotes by Bob Dylan.

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Of course, Lehrer is a journalist, and Daisey is a theater artist, but documentary theater is supposed to stick to the facts. He purported to be telling the truth in “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,’’ which became an off-Broadway hit with its smoothly interwoven blend of stories about Jobs, the cofounder of Apple, and Daisey’s descriptions — drawn, he said, from firsthand accounts — of working conditions in Chinese factories that produce Apple products such as the iPhone and the iPod. In the piece, Daisey castigated American journalists for not bothering to investigate those working conditions, something he said he’d accomplished with ease.

But in March, NPR’s “This American Life,’’ which had previously aired the monologue, revealed that it contained numerous falsehoods. (Daisey has since revised the piece.) Zinn’s mashup includes audio excerpts of a grilling of Daisey by “This American Life’’ host Ira Glass.

Zinn, the former longtime artistic director of Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, reads a condensed version of Daisey’s original script from an iPad, sometimes while seated at a desk on which sit an iPhone and a MacBook Air laptop. Loaded with evocative descriptions, the monologue is a reminder of what a compelling storyteller Daisey is. If only he’d stuck to the facts.

Zinn praises Daisey for focusing on the “human cost’’ of our technological toys, but criticizes him for failing to fully own up to the impact of his untruths. He faults him for the “convoluted explanation/justification’’ that he said Daisey delivered in Boston in June during a performance of “The Orient Express (Or, the Value of Failure),’’ a new monologue, before invited guests at a theater industry conference.


“It seems that he believes what he did was OK because what he did, ultimately, advanced the cause of social justice for exploited workers in China,’’ says Zinn.

But Zinn seems less interested in piling on or delivering a sweeping indictment than in using the Daisey episode to examine theater’s relationship to truth — and prodding the audience and his fellow theater artists to ask a few questions of their own.

The even-keeled tone Zinn maintains for most of the show rises to a pitch of incredulity when he describes a panel discussion in Boston, held the day after the “Orient Express’’ performance, at which Daisey appeared with other documentary theater artists. “Coming so soon on the heels of the scandal, we were all eager to see the controversy addressed head-on and to witness the fireworks that would surely ensue,’’ says Zinn. “We were disappointed. Everyone was so [expletive] polite.’’

Why is this passivity such a problem? Because, Zinn argues, Daisey’s transgressions could harm other practitioners of the craft, possibly causing audiences “to take less seriously, or, in the future, question the veracity of the really good and rigorously careful documentary theater work done by the Civilians, or Anna Deavere Smith, who made ‘Fires in the Mirror,’ or the Tectonic Theater, who made ‘The Laramie Project,’ or Eve Ensler, who made ‘The Vagina Monologues.’ ”

About midway through his adaptation of Daisey’s monologue, which he is performing on a stage that for decades was the home of Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, Zinn makes an apparent allusion to his own resignation last year from that company.


He informs the audience that he’s going to depart from the portion of the script that describes how Jobs was bounced from his company by the Apple board of directors, because “we all know this part of the story: Guy starts a company which becomes wildly successful and then that company is basically stolen from him by his board of directors, who fire him. . . .’’ Zinn pauses, then adds, deadpan: “I’m talking about Apple. Yeah. I couldn’t really relate to that story so I cut it.’’

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@