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Steve Jobs: Under the Lens at the Public Theater

As the house lights go out on the third floor of 425 Lafayette St., the gong sounds of an Apple computer booting up. In the dark, light-emitting diodes (LEDs) flash in front of the audience in geometric motherboard patterns and then, suddenly, the lights go up on Mike Daisey, the star and creator of his own one-man show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” which opened at the Public Theater Monday night.

Dressed all in black, Daisey sits onstage behind a desk with nothing more than a glass of water and a black handkerchief at his disposal. As he delivers his lines, the ghosts of Spalding Gray (“Swimming to Cambodia”) and Chris Farley ("Tommy Boy") come to mind, which provide some levity given the show’s heavier themes. Because unlike the outpouring of admiration and affection from Apple users since Steve Jobs’s death earlier this month, Daisey’s show is a far cry from a vigil for the founder and former CEO of Apple.

Daisey is a well established monologist. The New York Times called him “one of the finest solo performers of his generation.” His shows — “The Last Cargo Cult,” “Great Men of Genius” and “21 Dog Years,” to name a few — artfully blend journalism, autobiography and improvisation. Jobs was his muse for this, his latest work, which might be the defining achievement of his career.

“I've always been obsessed with Steve Jobs,” Daisey said the day of his opening night performance at the Public. “If you're going to talk about technology, then there's no one else to talk about except Steve Jobs.”

To research the show, Daisey read several biographies and interviewed Jobs’s friends and associates. In May and June of 2010, he also took a trip to China, where he successfully infiltrated the highly-restricted Special Economic Zone of China’s third largest city, Shenzhen. (Fifty percent of the world’s electronics come from this single hub, according to Daisey.) He posed as an American industrialist so he could get a look at the city’s infamous Foxconn plant.

Apart from manufacturing all of Apple’s products, in recent years Foxconn has made headlines for the startling number of its employees who have committed suicide by jumping from the top of the factory’s buildings.

“What I didn't expect was the widespread institutionalized dehumanization,” Daisey said. “I mean, the way the systems are built and regulated is out of the jungle. It's at least a century out of date with anything resembling safe labor practices.”

The Foxconn visit formed the basis for “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” And although much of the show pays homage to the legacy of the deceased tech visionary, delving into the darker side of Apple's overseas manufacturing practices was a vital piece of the story for Daisey.

“If America is going to thrive in the next century, we need to wrestle with where our jobs went and the circumstances under which all our items come to us today,” Daisey said. “And if we refuse to look at that, we're going to live in blindness. We're not going to deal with the world as it actually is."

“The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” made its American debut not far from the Silicon Valley this past January — at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. The director of the work, Jean-Michele Gregory, at this point is very familiar with Daisey’s work. She’s directed nearly all of his monologues and has been married to him for 11 years. Gregory also accompanied Daisey on his trip to China.

On the night of Oct. 5 when the news broke that Jobs had died at age 56, Daisey was up late on his laptop, lit only by the glow of his screen, "the way that so many of us surf the Web in the dead of the night,” he said. Since that day, Daisey said that his monologue and the audience’s reaction to the show had changed.

“In a lot of ways, it's kind of like performing a new piece,” said Daisey. “You know, I'm very grateful that I got to work on it and build it while he was alive. And I'm really grateful that it reflects this sort of moment when he was still here.”

In one of the more heart wrenching parts of his performance at the Public, Daisey asks why Jobs never threw a grand press conference — as he was famously known to do — to announce that, “From this moment on Apple will be changing the world. Today, Apple will lead the way in the future of global manufacturing…”

But in the wake of Steve Jobs’s death, Daisey knows such a moment will never come.

“Maybe it was naive,” Daisey said, “but I believed that if hundreds and hundreds of people wrote to him — and they did — that there was a chance we might be able to change the world."

“The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” is at the Public Theater through Nov. 15.