Fictional Add Ons Get In the Way of Daisy's Impact

Rhett Martinez, Jonathan Minchew-Gonzalez and Rachel Logue in Daisy
Rhett Martinez, Jonathan Minchew-Gonzalez and Rachel Logue in Daisy Photo by John Lienhard
In an era when political messages come to us as targeted partisan propaganda via social media and where our own personal data is being used to manipulate the way we vote, it’s downright quaint to think of a time when electoral attacks ads were considered unethical. A time when denigrating a political opponent was thought to be the worst form of bad taste.

A time before the 1964 Daisy Ad. The fear-mongering television spot, a first of its kind, was commissioned by President Lyndon Johnson as a tool to help him crush the alt-right, hawkish Republican Barry Goldwater in the election. The ad shows a sweet young girl pulling petals off a daisy, counting as she goes. When she reaches number nine, an authoritative voice takes over, counting down to a nuclear explosion that we witness as the camera zeroes in on the little girl’s eye. The message is clear. A vote against Johnson is a vote for nuclear war. The public reaction was also clear, the spot was so upsetting it only ran one time as a paid advertisement. History shows, however, that one time was all it took for the spot to achieve its political aims.

The infamous ad, its motivation, creation and repercussions is the subject of Sean Devine’s play, Daisy, a show that layers many fictional trappings over what might have been a more interesting and genuine look at the genesis of our present-day political persuasion tactics.

Instead of the real team at the advertising firm DDB that was tasked by the White House with creating these new kinds of aggressive attack ads, Devine plays the inclusion card. He throws in the fictional copywriter Louise Brown (Rachael Logue) in with real-life ad men, Sid Myers (Rhett Martinez), Aaron Erlich (Aaron Echegaray) and Tony Schwartz (Jonathan Minchew-Gonzalez), as a kind of plot device to address gender bias in the '60s workplace. The guys respect her talent but resent her quick ascent, and she fends off the typical workplace misogynist softballs that feel like cheap checkmarks in liberalized retro storytelling.

Worse still is the fact that Louise is the only ad team member that seems to have an issue with the task they’ve been given. And not just an issue, she agonizes about the morality of the kind of political ads they’re producing. Is it moral, is it fair, is it manipulating, where will it lead? She does the work, and does it well, but oozes angst the whole time, making it seem like only a woman would have moral quandaries crossing this type of professional line. That only a woman having emotions about questionable practices would be narratively believable or palatable. But before we think that Louise is all empathy, Devine takes her from honorable to liar, throwing in a secret she’s keeping from the team. This Madonna and whore-lite depiction, while expertly played by Logue, feels utterly unnecessary to the story at hand.

But while Louise’s role may be problematic, it’s nothing compared with the other fictional character thrown in for inclusive measure. Clifford Lewis (Brandon C. Balque), an African American man, is the White House liaison between the ad firm and the President. He's an adviser charged with overseeing the television spots and presenting them to Johnson. While it’s terrific to see persons of color in plays and on stage (something we need more of), the inclusion of Clifford is so historically inaccurate that it feels insulting. Johnson has barely passed his Civil Rights Bill, race riots are erupting in the streets, the President subsequently shies away from talks of race for fear of harming his election chances, and we are supposed to believe that a black man is in a crucial position in Johnson’s re-election team?

More problematic is Devine’s use of the character as a kind of stand-in for the ‘every black citizen’. We watch as Clifford sings a spiritual with joy (by himself in his office) at hearing Johnson’s Civil Rights Bill has passed and fights back tears watching footage of the race riots that erupted shortly after. No doubt Devin’s motives were honorable here, trying to show how things looked from the point of view of the black community at the time, but this kind of tokenism just doesn’t gel with the story or our awareness of the truth.

However, when Devine dispenses with the fictional and focuses on the real characters and events that led up to the Daisy Ad, we’re rewarded with a story that intrigues and characters that deserve narratives all on their own.

Sound guru, Tony Schwartz, the unsung originator of the Daisy Ad idea, is a bundle of idiosyncrasies. Agoraphobic, socially awkward, obsessive about his work, and full of intensely intellectual ideas about what sound can do to the human psyche, Schwartz is one of those master geniuses you admire but know is a little bit nutty. And Minchew-Gonzalez plays him with quirky ego-filled perfection. Whether he’s lecturing us in Ted Talk fashion about the nature of sound and silence, fear as the great motivator or the power of the audience to intrinsically hear what is already there, we are rapt by his every word. Yes we know he’s strange, but Minchew-Gonzalez makes him interesting and capable and brilliant and we can’t help but wish we had the time to listen to him beyond the boundaries of the play.

But, if you need one good reason to see this show, the answer is simple. Aaron Echegaray playing the twitchy, blinking, bug-eyed, dark spectacle wearing, atomic bomb fearing, bundle of nerves, TV producer Aaron Ehrlich. A constant comic relief (in a laugh at him kind of way), Echegaray, gives a master class in oddity. While the rest of the characters are arguing about morals, Ehrlich is worried about lunch or about getting into trouble for stealing White House ashtrays or about his nerve-wracked wife. We shouldn’t be watching him all the time as we miss so much of Devine’s plot movements and tensions, but we can’t help ourselves. If Echegaray in on the stage, he’s all we want to see.

But you better look fast as this is a show that whips through scenes and set changes like they’re going out of business. Desks and sound booths and couches and chairs get schlepped off and on so many dozens of times in between the play’s mini scenes that all we can hope is that the stagehands are getting double pay for their troubles. Just once it would be nice if a scene didn’t end in a frozen tableau following some pointed revelation or emotional moment. Just once it would be nice if a scene had some breathing room. But that’s not this show. This is flash card storytelling without deep dives and Director Troy Scheid does her best to find continuity between the many change-ups.

Members of the design team do their part to make things work. Paige A. Willson’s costumes evoke '60s office fashion without excess and Peter Ton’s projections on four screens, surrounding the theater in the round set up, highlight plot points through news footage, graphics and of course the titular television spot.

And what a spot it is. Fifty-plus years later and the Daisy Ad still packs a punch. It’s a visceral ad that hits at our emotional cores. Our political attack ads may not be as nuanced or savvy, but they are the offspring of this moment and we’ve never looked back. Daisy might try too hard to speak to too many social issues at a time, but it does open our eyes to the birth of dirty pool political advertising, the realization that citizens, through the power of electronic media, can be politically influenced and manipulated. Anyone with a Facebook account can tell you, that legacy lives on.

Daisy continues through April 29 at Main Street Theater- Rice Village, 2540 Times Boulevard. For information, call 713-524-6706 or visit $36-$45.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman