Through November 7
Manbites Dog Theater, Durham

Not all input is insight. In this election year, we have seen distrust and disinformation flood the media, largely unchecked. It’s hardly news when the signal-to-noise ratio fluctuates during a presidential election. But what happens when one candidate’s signal is noise: a ceaseless yammer of racist, classist, and sexist invective more befitting of an applicant to some disgraced fraternity chapter than a contender for the country’s highest office?

That question has posed a challenge to the body politic and the journalists covering the race. It’s also challenged monologist Mike Daisey in his latest solo work, The Trump Card. Manbites Dog Theater is presenting veteran actor Carl Martin in a staged reading of the show over an odd patchwork of Sundays and Mondays, plus assorted other weeknights, until the eve of the election.

In the text, Daisey says he began to research Donald Trump more than a year ago, thinking it would turn out to be a chronicle of just another washout among the oddest field of Republican presidential candidates in recent years. At one point, he calls that group, which then included Ben Carson, Rick Santorum, and Ted Cruz, “fifteen defective superheroes … the worst version of the Marvel Shared Universe that ever has been.”

But when Trump rose to the top of the ticket, Daisey found himself telling a different story than he expectedone that Daisey adds to in real time as it unfolds. The L.A. Times reports that The Trump Card has expanded from the initial eighty-five-minute version released for public performance in early September to the two-and-a-half-hour marathon performed in California last week.

At a certain point, Trump was no longer just another eccentric suitable for Daisey’s recent American Utopias series. Daisey found himself presiding over a postmortem in progress, documenting the decline and possible fall of a political party, which could conceivably take out a sizable chunk of civil society in the bargain. In his efforts to determine how our politics and culture came to this, Daisey unearths unsettling insights, with greater substance than those vended by the pundit class. Along that journey, he cites and indicts the complicity of conservatives and liberals alike.

In another trademark gesture, Daisey finds unexpected parallels and connections between his own life and his subject. A package from Daisey’s father ultimately reminds him of his grandfather’s racism, and a theme party based on the 1989 Parker Brothers offering, Trump: The Game, brings Daisey to unsettling, unforeseen conclusions.

As expected, under Jeff Storer’s direction, Martin brings a blunt bonhomie and a keen poignancy to Daisey’s role. But even though it was billed as a staged reading, Martin was still too much on book on opening night. The life of a solo performance lies in the actor’s moment-by-moment interactions with the audience. Whenever Martin was looking at his iPad, and not at us, for more than a second, the air began leaking out of the scene. But with further rehearsals and performances over the next month, Martin’s immediacy in the role should improve, and the insights in Daisey’s script should be heeded while there’s still time.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Joker’s Wild”