"If I were a word, I would be 'More,'" Yeardley Smith admits early on in her one-woman play, appropriately titled More, which just opened at the Union Square Theatre. It would be difficult for the actress, best known as the voice of Lisa Simpson on the long-running TV show The Simpsons, to better sum up her life or the show she's written about it.
Smith spends the full 90 minutes of the play explaining where she came from, where she is, and why - even when credits included a number of TV shows, feature films, a Broadway play, and an Emmy Award - she has almost never been satisfied with what she's had. The reason for this, Smith reckons, is that a significant portion of her life involved trying to "fill the inside from the outside," searching for acceptance in her career that she couldn't get from her frequently absent father or somewhat reserved mother.
Over the course of her life, Smith always wanted to have everything but not pay the price for it - this led to a number of illicit affairs, a marriage that failed when she neglected it in favor of work, and long bouts with depression and bulimia. Though she now jokingly refers to her feelings about achievement and success as a "personality disorder," it soon becomes clear that the perky woman with an instantly recognizable voice has never had it easy.
But who has? The problem with More is not that Smith's life has not been particularly unusual, though actors with troubled families, a speck of insanity lurking just below the surface, or self-destructive quirks are a dime a dozen. If a life is somewhat devoid of Earth-shattering events (no, gaining notoriety primarily from a role in which she is never seen live on camera doesn't quite count), a show about that life must be creative enough to pick up some of the slack.
That's not the case here. Much of the writing is of the "I did this and then I did this..." variety that can all too easily sink one-person shows; Smith even details approximately one decade of her life in just that fashion, slowly moving from stage right to stage left as a living timeline. There's no question that Smith is a unique and engaging presence, but the play steadfastly refuses to catch dramatic fire until she begins facing down her own personal demons and provides More with what it has far too little of: conflict. Self-reflection and self-pity, on their own, don't make much of a play.
A strong director might have been able to compensate, but that doesn't happen here. Acclaimed actress Judith Ivey directs Smith as though she's trying to minimize her performance; the worst example is the dry-erase board Smith to illustrate some points - shouldn't performers and writers do that with words? - but most of the play is directed more for a screen than a stage. A stage work, even a one-person show, must be big enough to fill the space; Ivey's staging suggests instead that this one-person play may be a one-person TV special in the near future.
Loy Arcenas's set locks most of the action inside a giant picture frame, as if to underscore this point, though the set's rear wall, painted to recall the cloudy sky of the opening credits of The Simpsons, keeps the show visually fresh and optimistic throughout. David Meschter's sound design seems to distance Smith from the audience even more, almost disconnecting her voice from her body, and Beverly Emmons's lighting has a somewhat lazy, mushy quality that doesn't help provide the crispness so much of More desperately needs.
As is the case with any one-person play, Smith deserves plaudits for putting herself out there alone seven times a week with nothing between her and the audience. But even that act of courage seems suspect in relation to much of what she talks about - could this not just be her most recent attempt at having as much as she can while she can? After all, a solo Off-Broadway show in a major venue is a big deal - it's certainly not out of the realm of possibility that, even now that she has More, Smith still wants more. It won't be that surprising if her audiences do, too.
Yeardley Smith: More