The tug-of-war between the classical and the topical shows up in the marketing of Anna Deavere Smith on tour, as she performs her latest series of interview-based monologues, Let Me Down Easy, at Santa Monica College's Broad Stage, in association with Arena Stage of Washington, D.C.
"Let Me Down Easy explores the human side of the health care debate," proclaims the PR headline. Leaving the theater after the show, audience members remarked that the performance had almost nothing to do with the health care debate, though this was said with no consternation about the event itself.
Smith is the same performer who created a shattering series of monologues, also based on interviews, in the wake of the riots following the Rodney King verdict, called Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. That piece was indeed topical, an entry into larger social and human concerns about injustice and bigotry, latent and overt, in a city where ethnicities rub up against each other all the time, and occasionally crash into each other and burn.
But to describe Let Me Down Easy as pivoting on health care is as much beside the point as calling Waiting for Godot a theatrical discussion of poverty.
Smith herself is largely culpable in the false branding of her show. When it was announced that a revised version of the piece (which has been performed at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., and the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn.) had found financing and a theater off-Broadway in 2009, Smith told The New York Times, "It's a substantial revision of what I did before, focusing far more on health care than the previous productions. Signs seem to suggest we will soon be in a vigorous national debate over health care. The piece not only looks at the human body as both resilient and vulnerable, but also health care as a practical part of that."
One of her characters is rodeo bull rider Brent Williams, continually getting smashed up in his profession. He argues that a military-style flat-rate health care system is the only system that makes any sense.
One in a string of very moving portrayals in the work's midsection is Dr. Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, working at New Orleans' Charity Hospital, describing how simple it can be to treat patients with caring. Her observation is mingled with disgust and muted rage about the abandonment of the hospital by FEMA during Hurricane Katrina, and how its patients, the city's poorest, understood so clearly that wealthier patients in private facilities had been helicoptered to safety even as the levees had been opened onto the poorer wards in order to protect the wealthier areas.
But the linkage of our health care system to social injustice is a marginal aspect of Smith's 20-character meditation on mortality — the same theme for which Margaret Edson won a Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for her play Wit. That play was about a female scholar of English poetry, a specialist in the sonnets of John Donne, facing down death and revealing her professional passion and her personal loneliness through the ordeal of ovarian cancer. This is not an idea that anybody would call marketing-friendly, and yet the play's classical and decidedly anti-topical virtues not only prevailed, they were awarded and subsequently embraced with multiple productions of the play.
The only reason the marketing of Let Me Down Easy and of Smith's own remarks to The New York Times is worth comment is how it reveals the belief of an accomplished artist and her publicists that if a work of theater isn't somehow connected to newspaper headlines, it won't be considered important enough to sell. Which raises the question of what, exactly, is important, and its relationship to what, exactly, is enduring.
Smith is something of a cross between an impersonator and a conjurer, aiming to capture the essences of the people she interviews through idiosyncrasies such as Tour de France cyclist Lance Armstrong scratching himself, or the way the words of heavyweight champion boxer Michael Bentt stall and backtrack before pushing their way forward to the completion of a sentence. And yet, despite these signposts of individuality, the overarching voice is singularly Smith's — throaty and weighty, capable of careening from a joke in which ABC movie critic/cancer patient Joel Siegel denies an afterlife into the dying man's solemnity, as though in a battle between the wry and the grave.
The piece opens and closes with seminarians — from Professor James H. Cone of the Union Theological Seminary in New York to Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard. What transpires between these bookends goes from stricken athletes testing the limits of their body, and thereby aiming to defy the inevitabilities of biology and mortality, to the experiences of doctors and patients facing down death, to Trudy Howell, director of a South African orphanage ushering children with AIDS through the end of their young lives.
Amidst this spirited and spiritual procession come celebs with trite insights who have been included for obvious reasons but have a scant relationship to the eternal verities that appear to be the work's reason for being: The trivial contributions of model Lauren Hutton and author-activist Eve Ensler demean Smith's larger purpose and provide the kind of bloat that gives the piece the appearance of multiple endings, masking the profound circularity of Smith's literary design.
Director Leonard Foglia stages the work on Riccardo Hernandez's set of white divan and broad desk with chairs, against a backdrop of five mirrors in which the performer sometimes is reflected in alternate angles — far more theatrical than the de rigueur video projections used so frequently, and frequently so pointlessly.
Smith performs in costume designer Ann Hould-Ward's white blouse and black trousers, an outfit that becomes a kind of rack for sundry jackets, ensnaring different essences of different characters.
Let Me Down Easy is a bit like a parade of 20 people who are never less than engaging, at times hypnotic, speaking on matters having largely to do with human frailty, of passing through life into something beyond.
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Particularly memorable is the conjuring of musicologist Susan Youens, who's a bit like the scholar in Edson's Wit. Youens describes her passion for composer Franz Schubert, diagnosed with incurable syphilis at the age of 25, who composed his most glorious music under the cloud of his own mortality. To leave something behind: That is so much of what could be called the life force.
Smith conveyed Youens by pushing out the nasality in certain adjectives describing the woman's bliss, sending an impression of pomposity that caused some audience members to laugh at her.
Other critics have noted that Smith doesn't judge her characters but allows the audience to judge instead. Not sure that's true. She brings a twist of mockery, of caricature, to this ever-so-fragile genre. It's a slight betrayal of trust, a subtle diminishment of this work's possibilities, and of its importance.
LET ME DOWN EASY | Compiled and performed by Anna Deavere Smith | Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center, Broad Stage | 1310 11th St., Santa Monica | Through July 31 | (310) 434-3414 | thebroadstage.com