If you work for the government, or a family business, or at a long-established company in a safe industry, you probably laughed like crazy during the opening performance Friday of Mike Albo’s three-weekend run of his new monologue, The Junket.
If you’re a freelance writer, or an actor, or a playwright, or a practitioner of any number of other creative callings, you probably laughed as well. And then went home and slit your wrists. Or at least thought about it.
I’m being dramatic. But Albo’s hilarious and fraught 80-minute exploration of the joys and pitfalls of freelancing, free goodies and free-falling left a knot in at least one theater-goer’s stomach. The laughs helped, but Albo’s story is one of unease and, as hard as he says he’s trying to avoid it, bitterness.
With sky-rocketing rents and an Internet that has devalued writing, music and other creative endeavors, it’s not an easy time to be a creative in New York. But Albo’s story is particularly daunting. The suspicion that he may be bringing a good portion of his troubles on himself is only somewhat reassuring. Don’t we all?
Albo, 44, has been a freelance writer in New York for most of his adult life, and by many measures, a very successful one: He has appeared in many of the city’s most important publications, and he’s written and published plays and books (including the 2011 book upon which The Junket is based). He has managed to avoid “getting a real job” by living in a cheap apartment in Brooklyn, working hard, and because, well, he’s a little commitment-shy. He’s a journalist, but he’s really an artist, and showing up to work in an office, any office, is out of the question. Perhaps that’s why he’s avoided having a long-term boyfriend as well?
Albo’s longest-lived relationships seem to be his passion for writing and his lifelong love-affair with consumer goods. Make that love-hate affair. But it has served him well, including landing him a gig at a certain large newspaper he refers to in the show as The New York Tomes, where he wrote a column, freelance, called The Critical Shopper.
In The Junket, Albo relates his experience when, in violation of “Tomes” policy, he accepted a press junket to Jamaica, was found out by a local online gossip rag he (barely) disguises as “Jabber,” and lost his column – along with much of his meager income. That’s the barebones of the story, and the show is loaded with references to what seems like dozens of brand names he has barely disguised “for legal reasons.” Albo clearly has a bone to pick, and scores to settle, and he does so wittily and sometimes effectively. His point, often made, is that even publications with ethical guidelines, and often those without them, make mistakes, and pay for it. It just doesn’t cost them quite as dearly.
After monologuist Mike Daisey’s recent troubles regarding the lines between journalism and the more-traditional confessional (thus to some degree fictionalized) solo entertainment, Albo’s show is both timely and troubling. His self-awareness serves the show, and he is as much or more a target of his own satire as any brand name he skews, save perhaps for “Jabber” and “The Tomes.” But one is always aware, or should be, that much of this monologue is self-explanation, or less-kindly, self-justification. But again, aren’t they all? As with Daisey’s work, this is not journalism, but entertainment.
As you can see, it’s a weird, complicated beast, and dangerous ground for an artist, a journalist and perhaps, even for an audience member. The minefield is wide, the potential consequences profound, and no one is innocent. We set our own traps, and then walk into them. Any honest audience member must get to the end of the show having had good laughs, and perhaps feeling for Albo, but also thinking, well, yeah: That’s what can happen when you step off the straight-and-narrow.
But don’t we all?
Albo’s contentions about the conflicts-of-interest faced daily by journalists, especially those writing about fashion and consumer goods – and the arts, and the stock market, and travel, and perhaps even politics and “hard” news – often ring true. The big organizations, Albo seems to argue, can afford to observe strict rules about what constitutes “swag” and where the “bright line” is. But the little guy has a harder time of it.
He’s right, it’s complicated: There is much more compromise and hypocrisy in the world of journalism than is often admitted by the big organizations and professional scolds.
But he’s also wrong: Junkets are a minefield, and their prohibition by some organizations is reasonable, and The Tomes‘ prohibition was clear – and he knew it. The Junket shows how Albo paid for being wrong. Equal parts mea culpa and j’accuse, The Junket is both fun and frustrating. Albo admits his mistake, but he also seems to defend making it. What’s moving about The Junket is that only the most hard-hearted or self-satisfied purist, journalist or not, could watch it and not understand Albo’s position. The slippery slope is well-named, and its negotiation has kept many an ethical theorist busy. And wouldn’t it be a hoot to go on an all-expense-paid trip to Jamaica?
For the non-journalists in the crowd, the show is perhaps easier to take. Full of amusing insights about consumer culture, gay culture and his own peculiar personality, Albo delivered belly laughs with astonishing frequency. Clad all in white, he used his training as a dancer to fill Dixon Place’s expansive, open floor stage.
The performance was not without flaws: On opening night, Albo had regular difficulty with language, stumbling frequently over words, a sign that the show is still new, and performance is hard. Likewise, the use of canned music and visual projections on the stage’s enormous backdrop struck me as superfluous, but that’s because Albo’s use of language and his vivid performance communicated everything he meant to.
Although it bore many of the trappings of today’s dime-a-dozen monologues – personal confession, psychological exploration and a plea for understanding and perhaps forgiveness from a sympathetic audience – The Junket also introduced some journalistic and ethical themes that gave it a wider resonance. It also served as a cautionary tale about the age-old difficulties faced by a profession that is undergoing profound and disruptive change, one in which it is increasingly difficult for the independent to make ends meet.
It was at points a harrowing exploration of the new, fodder-seeking media environment in which any mistake by one player can instantly become fuel for another. Many of us have found our opinions challenged, even twisted and misrepresented, in today’s rough-and-tumble media environment. I have. But there’s really nothing new about that. What’s changed is the immediacy of the push-back, and ultimately, that’s a good thing. It keeps us on our toes.
We should all be glad that the new media is, to a degree, self-policing – although some “police” are less concerned with policing themselves than with catching the trespasses of others – and if we’re lucky, the truth will out. But sometimes the truth isn’t on our side, we make a mistake, and we pay for it.
Albo here tries to police himself, in retrospect at least, and it isn’t an easy task. He uses the outlet of performance to process his suffering, and perhaps reducing his suffering in the process. At the very least, those of us in the audience get plenty of laughs to sweeten the bitterness of suffering along with him.
– David Watts Barton
The Junket continues at Dixon Place, 161A Chrystie Street (bet. Rivington and Delancey), Nov. 8 & 9 and Nov. 15 & 16, at 10 p.m. Tickets are available at https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/928347.