If You See Something Say Something
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
October 22, 2008
Want to know how else, besides voting, you can do your civic duty this election season? Go see Mike Daisey's breathtaking new show, If You See Something Say Something. I don't think I'm being too hyperbolic by calling it one of the most important shows of the year, if not the most important. Why? Because it tells the modern history of how our country formed in several crucial ways. For anyone who believes (as Daisey does) that we are doomed to repeat history if we don't learn from it, If You See Something Say Something is essential theatergoing.
If my description makes it sound a little heavy (translation: depressing), then please know also that Daisey's dazzling new monologue is one of the most exciting evenings of theatre one can have right now. His powers as a writer and a storyteller are stronger every time I see him. He possesses sharp focus, unshakable confidence, and accessible warmth. He lets the audience in, never keeping them at a distance. And, at his best (as he is here), he makes thought swing like the best jazz.
The theme of If You See Something Say Something is security and what that word means to us today. Daisey's thesis is that, in the language of security today, "there is no attempt to find the truth. The story of security is the elimination of metaphor." From there he covers the creation of the neutron bomb and the Department of Homeland Security, and the rise of America's military industrial complex. Daisey's natural curiosity leads him in many directions, all of which are fascinating, and his ability to make the political personal by connecting seemingly disparate thoughts and ideas is impressive throughout.
History buffs will marvel at the amount of different stories Daisey tells here. There are too many for me to give space to here, but a brief recap of my favorites should give you an idea about the show's content: the growth of White Sands, America's largest military installation (it's the size of three Rhode Islands), and Los Alamos, the single largest weapons laboratory in the history of the world; the creation of The RAND Corporation, a postwar think tank used by the U.S. government as an incubator for domestic and foreign policy; and the ideological rift between RAND analysts (and childhood friends) Sam Cohen (inventor of the neutron bomb) and Herman Kahn (the father of thermonuclear war scenario planning). All of these stories—and many more—play into the idea that America's defense strategy has increasingly been colored over time by fear, paranoia, and megalomania.
Then there's the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended World War II, a previously heroic event that gets a sobering revisionist reading by Daisey. We learn that the two Japanese locations were chosen for "maximum civilian casualties and maximum terror"—exactly the kind of criteria one would expect from terrorists. Daisey's subtle suggestion that America gave birth to the age of modern terrorism with those bombings is just one example of the mind-blowing discoveries If You See Something Say Something holds for audiences.
The show could easily get weighed down with gravitas were it not for Daisey's facile sense of humor. He lightens things up regularly with a point of view that finds the ridiculous in his subject matter as often as it finds the profound. Like when he speculates on the real reason Michael Chertoff was appointed U.S. Security of Homeland Security: "Because he looks like Skeletor." Daisey calls a mushroom cloud sculpture in the middle of Los Alamos an emblem of "civic pride," and describes a local salvage yard—fully stocked with equipment thrown out by the weapons lab—as what would happen "if Mad Max and Brazil fucked each other."
Despite the humor, If You See Something Say Something is ultimately serious at heart. Daisey reminds us that the Founding Fathers' act of rebellion against England could easily have been considered one of terrorism—the very kind we fear today. Ah, how ruefully cyclical the nature of history is. When Daisey recalls the words of two former Presidents—George Washington and Dwight "Ike" Eisenhower (both of whom were also highly respected and accomplished Army generals)—cautioning against the dangers of maintaining standing armies in peacetime "because they will find something to do," the audience recognizes the gravity of our nation's current political situation all too well. Daisey doesn't offer any solutions either. He leaves the audience to formulate those on their own. For no matter how you feel at the end of this extraordinary show, you will want to find one.