Tuesday, July 19, 2016

“Daisy’s” considerable potential not unleashed

Michael Gotch in Daisy (Dawn Schaefer)
ACT Theatre
Through August 7, 2016

The very first “attack television commercial” is now thought of as an iconic ad. It was created to support LBJ’s first run for the presidency after becoming “the accidental president” when Kennedy was shot. The commercial had a little girl pulling petals off a daisy and counting them (upwardly) and then a countdown of some official sort from 10 and a bomb exploding. It was meant to take advantage of people’s innate fear of getting bombed and was supposed to make people fear Barry Goldwater – the upstart Republican who many felt was extreme and rash.

That topic, particularly when another rash Republican is running for election, now, is a compelling and potentially fascinating idea. Playwright Sean Devine has been working on a play, Daisy, for a number of years and decided he would focus on the ad agency, itself, that developed the concept and created the ad. They won awards for it, later, too (the Cleo). That particular choice might have undercut the ability to exploit the excitement of that topic…

This summer, Devine had the opportunity to work on his script through our local Icicle Creek New Play Festival. ACT Theatre decided to debut the play in their main stage season, and it opened July 14th. The theme of the script is that of the ethics of playing on people’s fears and whether it is manipulative and wrong or just calling out something that already exists inside people.

The tensions of that time were extremely high. The Vietnam War was not yet a “war,” yet events there were heating up to a fever pitch. Civil rights tensions were also causing riots. Children were being taught how to “duck and cover” in schools in case bombs fell on them.

The table is set for a lot of potential, here. However, the script falls short in delivering the tension. It’s not clear exactly why, but there are some specifics that could be pointed to. First of all, advertising is and always was predicated on manipulating people’s emotions, “solving a need” they would say, or “finding the pain and providing the solution.” It could have been useful to have the ad agency folks acknowledge that before they start arguing about just one particular commercial of manipulated content.

They do talk about television as different, and it was still a novelty, there were still only three essential stations and all people who watched had only those to attend to, so there was a national cohesion that existed in a sort of vacuum of any other history. But there had been movies for quite a while. The power of the screened image to make people feel things was clear to many, already.

The script introduces an agoraphobic sound engineer, a real man named Tony Schwartz, as the guy who created the basic idea of that ad and perceived it as doing something good for the world. Then there are competitive ad agency folks who essentially take advantage of his distance as a consultant to take his idea and take the credit.

His monologues about sound are the most particularly compelling parts of the script. But they don’t actually propel the ethical argument. They demonstrate his specific understanding of the power of sound, which is helpful overall.  That point is lyrical and universal, so it’s great to include it. However, we’re not led to any clarity about how sound combines to help “trick” us emotionally, which I perceive is part of the point of the overall theme.

The first act is way overly long and full of the polemic of the “ethics” of developing an ad that is not attacking the political content of the nominees but rather playing on emotions of the voters. And it complicates by making a woman the main scold to men who (including by implication President Johnson) have no wish to be scolded.

This woman (a hybrid-recognition that there were women at this ad agency that were “allowed” to do similar work to men) is set up to be the ethical watchdog by the agency head and then immediately undercut by the same man. It’s not clear that Mr. Devine is aware that he’s done that. Then in the second act, this woman’s fear of Goldwater makes her acquiesce to the making of this odious commercial so quickly, after hating it, that it destroys the entire first sentiments.

I am not mentioning the ACT Theatre makers of the play because I want the focus to be on the subject area. Also, they don’t subsequently elevate the play so that it works even if the script doesn’t, the way I wish they could have. They do a serviceable job, though the projection work of Tristan Roberson is stellar.

But, while Devine could not possibly have predicted that the 2016 similarities would be so keen to 1964, there is a potent parallel. And the play focus could lead to explosive emotions and much introspection, but unfortunately, it as yet does not. Everything about the production and the script seems weirdly muted.

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