October 10, 2009

"Let Me Down Easy" Takes on the Hard Stuff

Asking the question “is there a doctor in the house?” could have set off a stampede the night my buddy Bill and I went to see Let Me Down Easy, Anna Deavere Smith’s latest one-woman show that opened this week at 2econd Stage Theatre.  The play’s theme is illness, dying and the health care system that mediates between the two. The appeal to the medical community is obvious and the doctors were in the house.  At the end of the 95-minute show, we recognized the former head of one major New York hospital standing near the stage and greeting colleagues like the father of the bride at a wedding reception or a minister at a wake. 

But you don’t need to be a physician to appreciate Smith’s examination of the human body.  As she did with previous documentary theater pieces, she has interviewed a diverse group of people about their thoughts on her subject and shaped the verbatim comments of 22 of them (ums and digressions included) into a work that is both entertaining and insightful. 

But unlike Fires in the Mirror, which focused on the tragic events that followed when a car driven by a Jewish man accidentally killed a young black boy in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn; or Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, which focused on the riots that ensued in that city after the acquittal of the four white cops accused in the videotaped beating of a black man named Rodney King, Let Me Down Easy lacks a catalytic event and the narrative tension such an incident provides. So it takes a while for the theme to emerge and even then the play meanders a bit.  I missed the tighter focus of the earlier shows.

I also missed their simpler production values. Smith, who has gone on to roles in TV’s “West Wing” and “Nurse Jackie” and movies like “Rachel Getting Married,” is much better known than she was when Fires in the Mirror first put her on the map with a modest staging down at the Public Theater and the folks at 2econd Stage have given her a production suitable to her now more august position.  Riccardo Hernandez’s stylish set gives her a comfortable sofa to sit on instead of a straight-back chair.  Slick video projections by Zak Borovay announce the various characters Smith portrays.  A factotum appears regularly to help with the small  changes of costume devised by Ann Hould-Ward.

The one thing that has remained the same is Smith’s uncanny ability to capture the distinguishing traits of each person she impersonates. This time her subjects include celebrity athletes and models like Lance Armstrong and Lauren Hutton whose bodies are the instruments of their life's work, lesser-known folks like New Orleans physician Kiersta Kurtz-Burke and Johannesburg orphanage director Trudy Howell who care for the sick and the dying, and clergy like Harvard chaplain Peter Gomes and the Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard who are as concerned with the soul as they are with the body.

Smith doesn’t mimic them but, with subtle adjustments to her speech patterns and body language and aided by the direction of Leonard Foglia, she captures the essence of who they are (click here to read about the Smith-Foglia collaboration).  “Is he really that full of himself?” Bill asked about one of the male characters who he knew I’d met.  You bet. She’d totally gotten the guy.  She also gets that death is a subject we prefer not to discuss but desperately need to talk about.  The result is a show that is just what the doctor ordered.


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