Berkeley Repertory Theatre Scores With ‘Great Men of Genius’

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Theatre is a tricky proposition. On any given day, you balance the possibility of seeing something laughably pompous versus the smaller chance of seeing something brilliant in concept andexecution. It’s a risk that increasingly few are willing to take, opting instead for a more democratic affair.

Mike Daisey certainly is pompous, but damned if he isn’t funny as hell in proving that he has every right to be. This past Sunday, Daisey kicked off a new series of monologues about four men of a certain elevated mental aptitude, appropriately entitled “Great Men of Genius,” at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage. Those monologues—an hour and a half each—about the lives of Bertolt Brecht, P.T. Barnum, Nicola Tesla and, a touch unexpectedly, L. Ron Hubbard—can be seen independently of each other on weeknights or in succession by masochists and continuity fetishists each Sunday.

What’s most striking about these monologues is how compelling they are to attend. Visually, there’s not much to look at. Daisey is sitting at a desk, alone, on a black stage, in front of black curtains, clad in black shoes and black pants and a black button down shirt. And that’s it, really. It’s just a thirty-something guy sitting down to have a nice talk.

Conceptually speaking, this is all pretty daring. As such, it’s easy to imagine Daisey as some crusty old man impersonating Jim Lehrer on Quaaludes. Happily, Daisey is, like his subject Barnum, a master showman, combining the storytelling acumen of David Sedaris and Lewis Black’s outraged humor. Each monologue would probably play well on radio, but Daisey visually engages people in such a unique way, through both pointed gestures and cheerful improvisation (Daisey delivers each monologue from a set of notes) that it would be a shame to lose the rapport he establishes with his audience.

The “Great Men of Genius” monologues follow a similar format, as Daisey recapitulates the history and heroics of each man, shoehorning in his own personal anecdotes along the way. The histories are singularly funny and enlightening, but Daisey is at his best (as who is not?) when he’s talking about himself. It’s rare that a performer can execute a perfect note of compassion—as when he relates the story of a young girl bankrupted by the Scientologist bureaucracy—while still being able to tell with sadistic glee the story of a lab partner who dared to pour liquid nitrogen down her throat (she lived).

That said, some monologues are weaker than others. It’s difficult to think of Hubbard as some sort of a genius when Daisey sets him up as little more than comic foil. Sure, Hubbard is an easy target, and the yuks at his expense are probably well-warranted, but unless you consider a remarkable ability to score despite being a self-involved lunatic (and Daisey dives into Hubbard’s sexual dalliances with abandon) a manifestation of genius, it’s hard to wonder at his inclusion with the other luminaries.

Still, it’s difficult to dislike Daisey. If the show feels like a summer eve gathering of friends, Daisey is that one filthy-mouthed friend who scandalizes your parents (indeed, the nice dowager next to me got up and left 5 minutes in) but is too entertaining to stop. These monologues mostly work because there’s the unwavering impression that Daisey truly cares about these men. And if the fact that Daisey shares the spotlight with his subjects means he may have a slightly high opinion of himself, so what? After a triumph like “Great Men of Genius,” there won’t be many to argue the point. Except maybe that dowager.

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