Thursday, October 8, 2009

Let Me Down Easy


By Anna Deavere Smith. Directed by Leonard Foglia. Second Stage Theatre. (CLOSED)

Yet another one-person show has opened this season to positive reviews. (Note: Later critics have been much harder on the play.) In Anna Deveare Smith's Let Me Down Easy, she recreates over 20 interviews on the subject of death and health care. Critics write that Smith offers a lot of insight on the current health care debate without imposing an agenda. As noted by critics, Smith's design team unobtrusively aid her transformations.

Backstage A+
(David Sheward) Smith captures every hesitation and search for the right word as well as every pain and every adrenalin-induced rush of her myriad interviewees. She never condescends to them, but allows us to make our own conclusions. There are screamingly funny moments as when Smith's aunt recalls the startlingly unusual last words spoken to her by a dying sister, and heartbreaking ones exemplified by the recollections of a South African orphanage director about her AIDS-infected charges. As the nation vociferously debates health care reform, "Let Me Down Easy" removes the high-decibel name-calling that characterizes the argument taking place in Washington, D.C. and at town hall meetings. Smith lets us down easy into the complicated issues. This stunning 90-minute essay in play form should be required viewing for tea-baggers, progressives, and anyone who has a body.

Variety A+
(Sam Thielman) An incredible mimic, Smith has found plenty of strong personalities to channel, but she never resorts to caricature even when the temptation must have been overwhelming. Armstrong is a perfect example: He presents his personal philosophy as a magic cure-all available to anyone willing to make the effort. Smith captures the cyclist's mean streak in a brief moment when he reflects that "there was a guy who was five times second in the Tour de France." Armstrong (well, Smith) pauses. "Sucks to be him. But, I look at it as, uh, he didn't make the sacrifices that I made." Even as Smith skewers Armstrong's arrogance, she suggests it's part of the indomitability he had to discover to rescue himself from cancer. Once you've tapped that reservoir of will, you can dip into it any old time, and you feel invincible... It's not all laughs and back-patting, of course. Smith's other subjects have had much closer calls and haven't escaped unscathed. Worst and saddest of them is Hazel Merritt, patient at a hospital in Connecticut where the nurses' neglect killed her daughter. Her story isn't just heartrending, it's a stern comment on Armstrong's assertion that everyone gets what they deserve. "There is just not enough of the best of everything to go around," says model-actress Lauren Hutton in the next segment.

The Faster Times A+
(Jonathan Mandell) The discrepancy between the care for the rich and the poor is one of several themes easily discernible in “Let Me Down Easy.” But the power of this play lies not in the themes but in the moments. There is Ann Richards, outspoken former governor of Texas, laughing (but deadly serious) about the need to preserve her Chi, her life force, in the face of illness. There is Joel Siegel, ABC movie critic, telling hilariously corny jokes, but he tells them with a video camera projecting his face onto a screen at the back of the stage, with the clear implication that his illness has all but paralyzed him. It takes a moment to remember, this is not actually Joel Siegel, but one of the most gifted theatrical presences in America.

The New Yorker A
(Unsigned) It has a terrific cumulative impact. She looks at everything from wounded machismo (a maimed bull rider, a boxer battered into a four-day coma) to the people who tend those wounds. Smith is doing more than opening up a much needed discussion about the dying and those who minister to them. The purpose of the enterprise, we realize, is for the playwright herself to learn how to die. It’s bracing, poetic stuff.

Newsday A
(Linda Winer) For me, what distinguishes a Smith work from most other such worthy projects is her curiosity about - and empathy for - multiple points of view. I knew gays in the military had problems before I went into the play about them. And when I left, I thought, "Yes, it certainly is a problem." I knew more specifics, but my mind hadn't been opened up to anything else about it. But I've never walked out of her pieces thinking, yes, I know exactly what she wants me to think. With "Let Me Down Easy," the net is especially wide for such a big, mysterious and, yes, upsetting topic. I wish the 90-minute solo had been longer - not a criticism I usually have. Compared with "Fires in the Mirror," which had 29 characters, and "Twilight," with 43, the 20 people recreated here seemed, at first, almost lonely and a bit scattered. It wasn't until I looked back on the experience that I fully appreciated the resonant breadth of the viewpoints, not to mention the remarkable discipline with which she avoids bathos and cliches.

New York Post A
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) Tracing a graceful -- and, at 95 minutes, nimble -- arc from lighthearted and funny to downright philosophical, Smith creates the mosaic portrait of an America disconnected from the cycle of life and unwilling to face death as natural and inevitable. At the same time, the show, elegantly directed by Leonard Foglia, subtly suggests that we all leave traces of our presence: The props. Smith uses to flesh out her portrayals remain visible after she's done with them. By the end of the show, the stage is strewn with jackets, hats, glasses, a breakfast tray -- as if to say, "It's not so bad. Memories linger."

Talkin' Broadway A
(Matthew Murray) Smith conducted the interviews over the course of a couple of years, and (with the help of director Leonard Foglia) has assembled them into a touching and caustic confessional that explores a wide variety of opinions as refracted through the title's linguistic uncertainty. Black or white, male or female, famous or not, Smith's "characters" all make a pungent impact on a discussion that delves into human conscience and mortality from very different angles than did Smith's race-oriented plays, Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992... A few choice costume pieces (the designer is Ann Hould-Ward) are all Smith needs to make her transformations, and by the end of the evening those snippets of clothing and various attendant props litter Riccardo Hernandez's extravagantly elegant set, which crowns an ivory combination living-dining room with angled mirrors that seem to reflect right into the souls of Smith's subjects. As, of course, does the actress herself: Her style may start with documentary, but it doesn't end there - she ensures that each of these people seem far too theatrical to be "real," which is exactly the response you want in a play.

TheaterMania A-
(Brian Scott Lipton) The middle section -- and the most impressive part -- of Let Me Down Easy is primarily concerned with America's health care crisis, as seen and experienced first-hand. For example, Ruth Katz, an associate dean at Yale University Medical Center, tells of how she was treated badly as a cancer patient at Yale New Haven Hospital until a resident is informed of her position. Most poignant is the recollection of Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, a physician at New Orleans' Charity Hospital, who reminds us of FEMA's neglect of this country's poor in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Under Leonard Foglia's savvy direction, Smith wisely incorporates a great deal of humor into the proceedings, which also helps undercut any hint of didacticism. Not every section seems necessary -- and I think Smith might have been wiser to reshuffle some of the segments' order -- but every word and gesture presented by Smith appears to have been carefully considered.

The New York Times A-
(Charles Isherwood) Even if you have already had your fill of heated debate about the crisis in American health care — informed, opinionated or just plain batty — do not go in fear of “Let Me Down Easy,” the new solo show from Anna Deavere Smith, which opened Wednesday night at the Second Stage Theater. The buzz words that have been filling the airwaves like swarms of gnats (“public option,” “death panels”) make no appearances in this engrossing collection of testimonials about life, death and the care of the ailing body. True, Ms. Smith has collected some input on the state of the current system. She includes contributions from a rodeo bull rider with a cynical view of doctors and a medical school dean who argues that prime consideration must be given to end-of-life care. (Yep, it’s that freighted grandma issue.) But just as often she seeks answers to more open-ended questions about the power of the human body, its susceptibility to disease, and the divide between spirit and flesh that poses mysteries no one can really elucidate.

Associated Press A-
(Michael Kuchwara) The stories are strikingly different. As Eduardo Bruera, a specialist at a Texas cancer centre says, "It is not plausible to turn dying into a picnic; it will never happen. ... (But) not everybody dies the same way." And those ways are what proves so fascinating in Smith's play. Humor exists side by side with sorrow. Joel Siegel, the television movie critic who died in 2007, gets a huge laugh with a great George Burns joke that won't be spoiled by telling it here. And Smith's aunt, a retired teacher, offers delightful remembrances of her own mother and older sister, memories that produce laughter and a few tears.

CurtainUp A-
(Elyse Sommer) The set (by Ricardo Hernandez) is, like the performance, deceptively simple: a couch, a few chairs and a table to help Smith move naturally and with fluidity from one tape recorded character to another. Four large upstage mirrors add a measure of theatricality. Each scene has a title which is projected onto an unobtrusive overhead screen along with a line about the character being channeled by Smith. The overall title is discussed by the first speaker, author and New York's Union Theological Seninary professor James H. Cone, who ponders that those words evoke broken hearts, love and could also be about death. Cone's last evocation sets the theme: dealing with illness and, in the case of the worst case scenario, dealing with death and dying which is after all what the health care debate is all about. Of course, Smith is too smart not to realize that timely or not, illness and death aren't exactly what people associate with a night out at the theater and she's thus managed to balance the serious scenes with light and peppy ones. Thus she follows the contemplative opening with an amusing segment called "Fire Dance," in which choreographer Elizabeth Streb describes a literally incindiary performance.

Lighting & Sound America B+
(David Barbour) There are many people you should meet in Anna Deavere-Smith's latest channeling session, but none more so than Kiersta Kurtz-Burke. She's a physician at Charity Hospital in New Orleans, an institution that, she admits, most of her colleagues are looking to flee as quickly as possible, on the way to well-paying careers. (An anecdote about a male colleague's unspeakably cruel bedside manner -- it's too shocking to repeat here -- is, sadly, par for the course, she adds.) Kurtz-Burke has always prided herself on the level of care that Charity provided to the city's poorest citizens. Then Hurricane Katrina hit and she details, with devastating clarity, how everyone -- patients and staff -- were all but abandoned in the stifling heat, with no electricity and a dwindling food supply. It's no wonder, she says, that the nurses on her staff believe the government opened the levees on purpose, drowning the Ninth Ward in order to save the city's wealthier districts. Even more dismaying to her is their certainty -- accurate, as it turns out -- that they will be the very last to be rescued... The scene occurs at about the halfway point in Let Me Down Easy, and, from there on in, the show moves from strength to strength. Before that, however, it comes across as a scattered, if often incisive, collection of character sketches.

Time Out New York B
(Helen Shaw) There’s prodigious intelligence and skill on display. It’s just that Smith once seemed to promise more: When audiences first saw her, it seemed like her judicious juxtapositioning was the work of a genius, or at least a call to a new, lacerating form. Now, the tidy snippets of experience, the deliberate emotional tugs and the high celeb quotient feel a little easy. Smith is excellent at what she does, but in tipping toward polish and the middlebrow, she has subtly let us down.

The Village Voice B-
(Alexis Soloski) Despite the claims of a recent New York Times Magazine article, Smith is not a particularly gifted mimic, nor does she vanish into her characters. In translating interviews into theatrical monologues, she tends to identify a facial or physical tic—lip-licking for Dr. Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, a splayed leg stance for boxer Michael Bentt—and conjure a role from that gesture. Smith never disappears; she merely adjusts herself to each new persona. Somehow, performer and character seem to coexist in the same body, like a set of transparencies slightly misaligned. It's a fascinating technique—and, in a show concerned with the body's intransigence, a fitting and moving one.

Bloomberg News D+
(John Simon) Yet what does it all come down to? Do we really care how Lance Armstrong, the supermodel Lauren Hutton, a rodeo bull rider, assorted doctors and patients of no particular interest sound off on these matters? They’re good for some cheap laughs, though not for 95 minutes of theater. One thing, however, is of interest. Everyone speaks terrible English, and I mean everyone, from professors of musicology to deans and ministers. I doubt whether Deavere Smith deliberately sabotaged them with assorted blunder or bluster, meaningless fillers, inarticulate stutter or inability to express the simplest ideas in passable sentences. The only character who comes off well is a Buddhist monk, who says very little and uses a cup of spilled water as a symbol. Otherwise, I recommend the show mostly to English teachers, who will feel either guilty as accessories to these verbal crimes, or unduly relieved that their students are not the only perpetrators of linguicide.

(Dan Kois) Smith isn’t an actress so much as a master impressionist, re-creating her interviewees’ every hem, haw, and (as her script at one point specifies) thirteen-beat pause with a transcriptionist’s care. She’s by definition incapable of transcending her material, and would be doing her subjects a disservice if she ever did. The play is thus strongest when she tells the stories of people on the front lines, like a doctor at Charity Hospital in New Orleans during Katrina, or a cancer patient who just happens to be a dean at the Yale School of Medicine. The show’s power completely dissipates when she turns to play pontificating academics or celebrities like Lance Armstrong or Lauren Hutton.

Wall Street Journal F+
(Terry Teachout) Her flat-textured "impersonations" of such familiar figures as Lance Armstrong and Lauren Hutton run to caricature, and even when she plays unknown people, you never quite feel that she has succeeded in submerging herself in their personalities. It doesn't help that the shapeless script of "Let Me Down Easy" lacks the clear sense of direction that one expects out of a theatrical performance—or, even more to the point, that so few of Ms. Smith's interviewees have anything especially memorable to say about their experiences with illness. It all adds up to a well-meaning pseudoplay that promises much but delivers much less.

Backstage A+ 14; Variety A+ 14; The Faster Times A+ 14; The New Yorker A 13; Newsday A 13; New York Post A 13; Talkin' Broadway A 13; TheaterMania A- 12; The New York Times A- 12; AP A- 12; CurtainUp A- 12; Lighting & Sound America B+ 11; TONY B 10; The Village Voice B- 9; Bloomberg News D+ 5; NYMag D 4; Wall Street Journal F+ 2; TOTAL: 183/17 = 10.76 (B+)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Maybe Anna Deveare can do something about healing and preventif health i have a story i would like to share