3.5 stars
(out of five)
Mike Daisey
Duke Performances
PSI Theatre, Durham Arts Council
Through Feb. 3

Since it’s my first time in the room since renovations in 2011, I’m a little shocked when I enter Durham Arts Council’s PSI Theater on Wednesday night.

The stage is now conventionally draped; its lighting grid professionally concealed, for the first time in memory, behind black cloth borders known as teasers. On its floor, a subtle coat of matte gray has replaced the reflective white surface that so effectively bounced the theatrical light—in all directions—during every production staged there in the 1990s and 2000s. (Just how much you can gauge by this photograph from before the facelift, that’s still on the DAC website.)

The one main question left about the room’s suitability as a theater was left unanswered Wednesday night, since Durham’s Carolina Theatre, on Morgan Street, was dark that night.

Why might that be important? Because the Carolina and the Durham Arts Council buildings abut one another. The back walls of the two venues are so close that concerts on the Carolina mainstage were clearly audible during a number of shows I saw at PSI Theater during the first decade of its existence, including a dramatically derailed Manbites Dog Theater’s production of The Moonshot Tapes.

I’m hoping that such a fundamental engineering gaffe which once made the room regularly unusable was addressed, either years ago or during last year’s renovations. I’m guessing audiences on Friday night (when Jesse Cook plays the Carolina) and Saturday (with a concert next door by Jane Monheit, with Mark O’Connor) will find out.

But the element that really chills me as I enter the room involves the two pieces of furniture on an otherwise empty stage: a wooden table, set front at center, with a single chair behind it. On the table, a glass of water waits, a little off to the right hand side.

The space seems clearly set for Spalding Gray, the dean of modern-day monologists who took his own life in January, 2004.

I’d followed much of Mr. Gray’s career, interviewing him in New York in 2002. Somehow, in the three years since I last saw Daisey’s work, I’d forgotten the extent to which he copies the late monologist’s setting. The frisson of the moment is a ghostly little hug.

But as I settle into a new, upholstered seat in the audience, I realize that what I’m actually expecting from this show is unmitigated disaster. Or, more accurately, a show about unmitigated disaster, at the least.

The reason I find I’m not-so-secretly hoping for that here isn’t simple schadenfreude—or the cheap cliché of a critic in grave-digger mode, for that matter.

Anyone familiar with Daisey’s work up to this point knows his physically and psychologically oversized on-stage persona: a sharp-eyed, incisive observer of his surroundings and culture—with a noticeably low threshold for frustration and suffered fools.

Part of the fireworks in a Daisey show involve watching the absurdities and injustices of life, both large-writ and small, set him off like a Fourth of July finale. Boom—his fist pounds the table; his face distorts into an all but digitally animated mask of extreme emotion, and his booming voice conveys the similarly exaggerated sounds and shrieks of outrage, exasperation and—very occasionally—delight. The character borders on human hyperbole.

So think about it. With a character like that, how much fun could a show about a perfect set of road trips be?

If Daisey actually found utopia at any of his three subjects—Burning Man Festival, Walt Disney World or Zuccotti Park in downtown Manhattan, one of the major ground zeros of the Occupy movement—we’d be climbing the walls well before the evening’s third hour.

Yes, I said “third hour.” The running time for American Utopias was 2 hours, 35 minutes on the night I saw it—without an intermission.

In almost any other performer’s hands that in itself would be a theatrical disaster. So give full and generous credit: Daisey is nothing less than spellbinding as a storyteller, and he weaves the threads of these decidedly dystopian odysseys into a broad-ranging and odd tapestry on three different American searches for a creative, social and political ideal.

Then advise him—and audiences contemplating this production—that even his iron-clad grip on the audience was slipping during this work’s last hour. American Utopias is clearly a work in need of editing, if not division into two or possibly three separate stagings. It’s probably the fastest two-and-a-half-hour show I’ve ever sat through—and frequently enjoyed. Still, there comes a point in that second Disney sequence where the audience is likely to experience a seratonin shortage all its own, similar to one our host relates encountering in Orlando.

The narratives on Burning Man have the gob-smacked, stranger-in-a-strangest-land quality of a festival first-timer—particularly one so totally unaccustomed to camping. A differently hellish descent, into Disney dovetails with long close encounters with an extended family he seems more than a bit estranged from. And Daisey’s social observations are particularly acute during the Zuccotti Park sequences. The fact that these in particular come at his—and our—expense gives them considerable gravitas and veritas.

For all that, though, a point still comes in American Utopias when we start to feel like we’re stuck at a friend’s house, watching what’s become an endless recital of home movies from that trip they took last summer. Putting an audience—and the performer—through this strange mix of performance and endurance art ultimately seems a disservice to both. The current form of the work compromises the strength of its material and its sharpest conclusions.

To be clear, that’s not a disaster. Far from it, in fact. But it is a shame.