Let Me Down Easy–Anna Deavere Smith's New Play at the Second Stage Theater NYC

8 Oct

Anna Deveare Smith

Woman of 1,000 Faces Considers the Body

By 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.

Unlike Ms. Smith’s acclaimed previous works, about the riots in Crown Heights, Brooklyn (“Fires in the Mirror”) and the racial unrest in Los Angeles after the Rodney Kingverdict (“Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992”), her new show is not tightly focused on a historical event.

Actually it is not particularly focused at all, though it is continually engaging. Instead of devising an organized primer on issues pertaining to health care in America, Ms. Smith has created a loosely framed but vivid compendium of life experienced at its extremes, drawn about equally from the suffering and the ministering sides of the story.

The first third of its 95-minute running time is largely taken up with attitudes toward the human body, and particularly the dedication of athletes who push against its limits. As always in her shows, Ms. Smith draws her texts verbatim from interviews she conducted herself, including pauses, repetitions, digressions and the occasional interruption for a cup of coffee or a ringing phone — details that add to the verisimilitude of the testimony.

The seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong speaks of his fight against cancer and how his natural competitiveness primed him for the battle: “The motivation is failure, ’cause failure’s death.” Then he turned around and used this souped-up ambition to return to cycling with more spirit than before: “Not that I thought I was gonna die if I lost the tour. But I certainly, I didn’t, I just didn’t want to face this, this, this demon called failure.”

The bull rider, Brent Williams, describes in gory detail the various predations he has subjected his body to, and how the doctors stitched him back up. He had his nose straightened after a fall without anesthetic so he could ride again that night. The heavyweight champion Michael Bentt recalls his brutal last bout, which put him in a coma for four days.

As the sports columnist Sally Jenkins notes, we prize athletes for their prowess and as symbols of the human ability to transcend life’s natural limits. The downside to this celebration of the superhuman is a denigration of the merely human.

In a rambling but funny monologue, the writer and activist Eve Ensler deplores the cultural pressure on women to simulate agelessness. “I think in this culture people don’t really die,” she cracks. “We’re all immortal here. We are all forever young here.”

As you may have gathered, Ms. Smith’s pool of participants is a little celebrity-centric. But as the show moves into more specific considerations of the state of health care, and later into meditations on death and disease, the balance tips in favor of nonboldfaced names.

Unnecessarily, we hear a breezy Lauren Hutton talking about how the Revlon chief Charles Revson opened doors to the best doctors in the city for her. More potently moving are the recollections of a physician working at a public hospital in New Orleans during the horrific aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Her sorrowing description of the government’s failure to evacuate the suffering poor offers stark proof of the economic disparities endemic to the current system. Another funny-sad example of inequity comes courtesy of a patient at Yale-New Haven Hospital whose charts disappear — like so many others, a resident shruggingly notes — until it is discovered that she is the chairwoman of the medical school.

Under the direction of Leonard Foglia, Ms. Smith moves briskly among these personalities on a handsome circular set ringed by large mirrors, designed by Riccardo Hernandez. Ann Hould-Ward conceived the simple costumes that Ms. Smith employs to signal her transformations.

For the most part these are unnecessary. Ms. Smith is not the kind of performer who wholly disappears into the people she is portraying; she is too forceful a presence for that. Instead she channels their voices through her own, using the specifics of speech patterns more than any fancy vocal gymnastics to let us hear each as an individual.

The final segment of the show, concentrating on the struggle against fatal illnesses and the reality of death, is naturally the darkest and the most affecting. An expert in palliative care speaks of how we cope with dying much as we have faced life’s lesser calamities. “If we were angry, we’ll probably be angry,” he notes. “If we denied the whole thing, we probably will deny the whole thing.”

Proving the point, the former Texas governor Ann Richards remains a blunt-spoken optimist even as cancer comes to call. Also fighting cancer, the film critic Joel Siegel retains his humor and his stubborn nonbelief in a sympathetically intervening God. “I do not believe in a God who would in any way interact between me and my disease,” he says. “I’m very Jewish.” (Both Ms. Richards and Mr. Siegel eventually lost their battles.)

Intentionally or not, “Let Me Down Easy” seems to have several endings. Mr. Siegel could have sent us out on a mordantly funny note. The minister at the Memorial Church ofHarvard, offering his views on the importance of accepting the fact of death (“Cherish the moment”), also seems a natural climax. His monologue is followed by a still more moving one from the director of an orphanage in South Africa, recalling the words she used to comfort an adolescent girl dying of AIDS.

And yet this heartbreaker is not the last word either. It almost seems Ms. Smith does not want to stop for death — like Emily Dickinson, and for that matter the rest of us.

LET ME DOWN EASY

A solo show conceived, written and performed by Anna Deavere Smith; directed by Leonard Foglia; sets by Riccardo Hernandez; costumes by Ann Hould-Ward; lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer; sound by Ryan Rumery; dialect coach, Amy Stoller; movement coach, Elizabeth Roxas-Dobrish; projection design by Zak Borovay; associate artistic director, Christopher Burney. Presented by the Second Stage Theater, Carole Rothman, artistic director. At the Second Stage Theater, 307 West 43rd Street, Clinton; (212) 246-4422. Through Nov. 8. Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes.

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