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Friday, June 10, 2005 - 12:00 AM

Theater Review

"The Ugly American": An actor's hilarious, strange year abroad

Seattle Times theater critic

Is life truly wasted on the young? Mike Daisey begins his new solo theater piece, "The Ugly American," riffing on (and debunking) that dubious old saw.

But Daisey is not wasting his own wonder years. He is, in fact, recycling vivid chunks of them into monologues, including this often hilarious, fitfully insightful new show, now in its regional theater debut at ACT Theatre.

As in his earlier solo spiel, "21 Dog Years: Doing Time@Amazon.com" (which catapulted from the Seattle fringe to Off-Broadway success), Daisey describes an eventful, serio-absurdist chapter in his still-youthful existence.

"Ugly American" scans Daisey's wild and crazy antics as a college kid of 19 in the early '90s, taking acting classes in London on a study abroad program. It's an archetypal "American innocent abroad" set-up. And as in "21 Dog Years," Daisey's narrative persona is that of a raring-to-go naif whose illusions are pumped up, dashed and vigorously revisited.

Now playing

"The Ugly American" runs Tuesday-Sunday through June 26 at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle; $10-$35 (www.acttheatre.org or 206-292-7676).

A blond dumpling of a man, with a ferocious vocabulary and a great raconteur's voice that can soar from a confidential whisper to a gored-bull bellow, Daisey gives anyone who's ever acted in anything a lot to chortle heartily at in "Ugly American."

He traces his "sordid love affair with acting" to college, where "theater is like crack for social networking." He takes outrageous, blazingly subjective shots at German experimental drama ("I felt like my eyes were bleeding"), actors' insecurity ("we're amazing in our desire to please") and the snobbery of English thespians toward their Yankee counterparts.

On the latter, Daisey scathingly recounts how a smug British acting teacher drills his class on Shakespeare, then directs them in a crummy, maudlin script. Why? They're Americans, and better get used to acting in junk.

The backstage/onstage mirth revs up to a frenzy when Daisey describes moonlighting as an actor with a "spooky" feminist fringe troupe-cum-cult.

Daisey wisely avoids aping British accents here. But he should rethink his use of profanity, not on ethical grounds but because the words lose their jolt.

His accounts of the nutty troupe he joins can get repetitive too — particularly the interminable descriptions of a graphic rape scene inserted into a wretched production of the Caryl Churchill play "Vinegar Tom."

Daisey and his director-collaborator, Jean-Michele Gregory, need to reshape this aspect of the show with care. For from it emerge the serious, if still-nebulous themes separating "Ugly American" from stand-up jokery. (Daisey actually tells his story while seated at a table, la Spalding Gray.)

As his sojourn takes a turn into the lurid and mysterious, Daisey touches on such intimate, shadowy concerns as male rage, the ethics of secrecy and the inscrutability of lovers.

This all arises from his love affair with Tamzin, an actress in "Vinegar Tom." Their rape scene in the play triggers a consensual mingling of sex and violence in their own coupling, which both excites and confuses the teenage Daisey. ("It was so wrong, but it felt so good.")

Later, learning Tamzin has a seamy job, and a drug habit, his fears and anger about her behavior, and his complicity, freeze into denial.

Daisey's refusal to tie up "Ugly American" neatly is admirable. But the title alludes to a theme that he doesn't explore enough. And the story's coda, a reunion with Tamzin years later, seems tacked-on and vague.

There's more for Daisey to discover here, and express. "The Ugly American" already is funny enough to keep a good many of us in stitches. But it tantalizingly aspires to be something more.

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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