Tuesday, December 22, 2009

New York, Winter 2009 - Day Six, "Let Me Down Easy"

Anna Deavere Smith is a woman of many talents, chief among them listening. She's made a bit of a career finding people with interesting stories, getting them to tell her those stories, then recreating them verbatim (or nearly so) in solo performances where she will play a range of people who are linked in some way. Sometimes the linkage is their joint association with a specific event -- the Crown Heights Riot for one. In her new show, "Let Me Down Easy," now playing at the 2econd Stage Theatre, the common thread is a single word: grace. What is it? What are our lives without it? Can we earn it? Can we give it to others? Most important to it, does it increase or decrease under pressure, especially the pressure of ill health?

Smith never addresses these questions in even an oblique way. Rather she presents a series of 20 brief portraits of a wide range of individuals, from celebrities such as Lance Armstrong, Ann Richards, Lauren Hutton and Joel Siegel to an array of unknown people: doctors, patients, a musicologist, the director of a South African orphanage. Each gets skewered a bit, but not without softening the blow with her deep respect and love for each of the subjects. You get the sense she thinks virtually of them are a little bit crazy for one reason or another -- but always gives them the benefit of the doubt, perhaps in hope that people will do the same for her minor insanities.

Though things do tend to get a bit overblown from time to time (the orphanage director who tells of how she sits up with each dying child was a bit too playing the heartstrings with a 2x4 for me), this was almost entirely a wonderful, brief series of visits from a collection of characters who take the stage one at a time. The space begins in a very neutral state: just spare white-on-white furnishings. As Smith takes on -- and then sheds -- the props and items of clothing associated with each character, the stage ends up littered with the detritus of their stories.

FYI - there was no theater on day five of this trip. Hence the break in order.

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