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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Let Me Down Easy, The Pride of Parnell Street and
Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps

Also see Tim's reviews of The Eyes of Babylon and A Midsummer Night's Dream

Anna Deavere Smith conducts an acting tour de force in Let Me Down Easy, her solo show now playing at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre. Smith prepared her play by conducting interviews on the subject of health, illness and dying, and she spends over ninety minutes onstage impersonating twenty of her interview subjects. The result is fascinating, both in the range of acting it displays and the documentary effect it presents, as it examines the ups and downs (mostly downs) of the American healthcare system.

The voices are diverse, and even include a few celebrities. Near the play's beginning, she portrays Lance Armstrong discussing how the competitive nature of being an athlete helped him in his fight against cancer. As the play winds down, and Smith eases toward a focus on the end of life, she becomes movie critic Joel Siegel, who lies dying while admitting that his own toughness is "just a character I play." A champion bull rider indicts the medical system, while another patient tells a horror story of how one hospital's staff mistreated her daughter. A white doctor describes the "feeling of abandonment" she felt working in a New Orleans hospital that lacked utilities for days after Hurricane Katrina, and how her black patients felt it was business as usual. At the other end of the economic spectrum, there's fashion model Lauren Hutton, who got access to the best doctors in New York because she worked for a multimillionaire, Revlon owner Charles Revson. She explains Revson's medical philanthropy with an offhand observation: "Most very rich guys want to live forever."

Smith examines the big questions: a medical school dean discusses statistics and what they really mean, and other interviewees bring up political issues. But for the most part, these are personal stories, reflecting how people approach medical crises and the ways in which they find solace.

Smith inhabits each interviewee convincingly. She nails Armstrong's drawl and arrogant attitude, as well as the lilting South African accent of a woman who treats children with cancer at a Johannesburg orphanage. The transformations, accomplished with a minimum of fuss (and sometimes a change of jackets), are stunning to observe. Leonard Foglia directed the show, and Ricardo Hernandez's stage set encompasses a number of playing surfaces (chairs, couches, tables) which allow Smith to put a lot of variety into her movements.

Some of the segments are too inconsequential for the matter at hand; for instance, the tale of a choreographer whose "fire dance" goes awry is funny, but seems out of place here. But the cumulative effect is strong. This is real life drama that's affecting, because the issues raised affect all of us.

Let Me Down Easy runs through April 10, 2011, at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 South Broad Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $25 to $59, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups, and are available by calling the box office at 215-985-0420, online at www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org, or by visiting the box office.


The Pride of Parnell Street
Kittson O'Neill and David Whalen
Photo: Bill D'Agostino
Irish playwright Sebastian Barry's The Pride of Parnell Street walks a fine line between brutality and sentimentality, viewing Ireland's problems through the prism of a troubled married couple. It's being given a fine production at the Act II Playhouse.

Janet and Joe Brady lived through a shared tragedy—the death of their young son—which brought them closer. But that closeness is shattered when Joe comes home drunk after Ireland's World Cup loss and takes out his frustrations by beating up Janet. Janet escapes to a nearby shelter, only to find that "half the street was down there." It seems that when their team became losers, the men of Parnell Street "knew they were losers too." Barry's writing is full of perceptive moments like that which evoke the provincial nature of Ireland as sharply as Dirk Durossette's street scape set. Joe quickly devolves to a life of drugs, crime, and denial, while Janet struggles to raise their two remaining children—all the while resisting pressure (both external and internal) to take the easy way out and let Joe back into her life.

Joe's problems are nothing new; we've seen depictions of a life of crime told more compellingly in other stories. What makes Joe's story different is the way he bounces from one self-induced crisis to another, always with an excuse ready yet knowing that he has no excuse. David Whalen's portrayal of Joe doesn't make him someone you'd want to spend a lot of time with, but he makes Joe credibly dangerous and anguished. Meanwhile, Janet, unlike Joe, lets her guard down immediately, letting the audience into her heart. Kittson O'Neill radiates intelligence and dignity as she demonstrates the steely strength that allows Janet to survive in an often ugly world.

Barry's play consists of monologues, as each character takes turns giving his or her own side of the story. That usually makes for a dull evening, but director Harriet Power keeps things from seeming static. Each actor remains onstage as the other speaks; when Joe talks about shooting up heroin, we see Janet looking morose in a near-fetal position. Reactions like this are done subtly and never distract from the drama inherent in the speeches. James Leitner's lighting has some nice gradual changes, and the actors' accents are believable but clear (Lynne Innerst was the dialect coach).

The Pride of Parnell Street has a lot of sweet moments (mostly thanks to O'Neill's performance), but it isn't exactly heartwarming. Barry's Dublin is a tough place full of hard choices, tragic consequences, and questionable decisions. But this play is an interesting and thoughtful piece of work.

The Pride of Parnell Street runs through April 17, 2011, at Act II Playhouse, 56 East Butler Avenue, Ambler, Pennsylvania. Ticket prices range from $22 to $36and may be purchased by calling the box office at 215-654-0200, online at www.act2.org or in person at the box office.


The 39 Steps
Paul Riopelle, Dan Hodge and David Hess
Photo: Mark Garvin
At the Walnut Street Theatre, everyone's got a spring in their step in Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, which reimagines Hitchcock's 1935 thriller as a comedy. Strangely enough, it works, mainly by keeping its tongue firmly in cheek for two hours.

Hitchcock's film (with a plot radically changed from John Buchan's source novel) tells of a man falsely accused of murder who must make his way from London to Scotland (and back) in order to clear his name and foil a scheme to smuggle state secrets out of the country. The play, by Patrick Barlow, tells the same story, but reduces the cast to four actors and adds a ton of comedic material. Thus we get men in drag, windows that suddenly materialize for the hero to jump out of, and a bunch of puns that reference other Hitchcock movies like Psycho and North by Northwest. It's all performed in the broad style of the old English music hall, a type of entertainment which also figures prominently in the plot.

Two "clowns" in the cast (Paul Riopelle and Dan Hodge) split more than a hundred roles between them, sometimes playing multiple characters in one scene just by changing hats and accents. They're terrific. So is David Hess, who plays the hero with the requisite stiff upper lip. Joan Hess plays the three women the hero meets on his journey; she's good in two character roles, but her portrayal of the damsel in distress is hard to warm up to.

Director William Roudebush's production moves at a breakneck pace, never allowing the audience a breath to think about how lightweight this all is. It's performed with a nod and a wink, never taking itself seriously for a moment. And that's what makes it so much fun.

Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps runs through May 1, 2011, at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $10 to $80, and are available by calling the box office at 215-574-3550, online at www.walnutstreettheatre.org or www.ticketmaster.com, or by visiting the box office.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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