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Let Me Down Easy

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Anna Deveare Smith
Photo by Joan Marcus.

The words of a broken heart or a description of dying from the inside out? The title of Anna Deveare Smith's new one-woman show at Second Stage, Let Me Down Easy, could mean either, according to James H. Cone, the first of the 20 vivid, reaped-from-real-life characters Smith plays in her 100-minute outing. They're all on hand to talk about health, living, and dying, and they create a beautiful collage of voices and opinions that all resonate within the realm of one of the most important (and contentious) issues facing the United States today.

Cone, an author and professor at New York's Union Theological Seminary, muses that the title words are distinctly African-American, deriving either from the natural sense of injustice present in blues and jazz love songs or from the evolution of language within the black community that gives simple phrases starker and more immediate contexts. "Swing low sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home," he mutters as yet another example before he steps aside to allow the next interviewee to the forefront. Cone may have the least to contribute to the direct discussion Smith is emceeing, but he sets the thematic stage for everyone that follows.

Smith conducted the interviews over the course of a couple of years, and (with the help of director Leonard Foglia) has assembled them into a touching and caustic confessional that explores a wide variety of opinions as refracted through the title's linguistic uncertainty. Black or white, male or female, famous or not, Smith's "characters" all make a pungent impact on a discussion that delves into human conscience and mortality from very different angles than did Smith's race-oriented plays, Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992.

The people sometimes relate experiences that are serio-comic, such as Elizabeth Streb, the choreographer of the STREB Extreme Action Company, who recounts in the "Fire Dance" segment how she once actually caught fire while dancing. On occasion they're outright tragic, as when Hazel Merritt, a patient in Yale New Haven Hospital, recalls a terrifying dialysis experience in "A Sheet Around My Daughter." They can even be completely disarming: Susan Youens, a musicologist at the University of Notre Dame, spins a fascinating historical interpretation of Franz Schubert, who chronicled his own waning in a number of his compositions.

A few choice costume pieces (the designer is Ann Hould-Ward) are all Smith needs to make her transformations, and by the end of the evening those snippets of clothing and various attendant props litter Riccardo Hernandez's extravagantly elegant set, which crowns an ivory combination living-dining room with angled mirrors that seem to reflect right into the souls of Smith's subjects. As, of course, does the actress herself: Her style may start with documentary, but it doesn't end there - she ensures that each of these people seem far too theatrical to be "real," which is exactly the response you want in a play.

This is true of people you may not have heard of, such as Phil Pizzo, who in "Takes a Lot of Time" defends health-care rationing with a moustache-munching oiliness suggesting a slightly restrained Dr. Evil from the Austin Powers movies. But it's even stronger in those whose names you know. In "A Raisin a Day," Smith so embodies Vagina Monologues creator Eve Ensler talking about the connection between food and life that she seems more like Ensler than does the real woman. Former Texas Governor Ann Richards is a down-home hoot describing the relationship between her esophageal cancer and her chi. And ABC movie critic Joel Siegel (who died in 2007), perhaps Smith's most serenely incisive invocation, touchingly jokes about the personal pain inherent in knowing the end isn't far off.

Death more than gets its due, of course, especially near the end of the show, when Reverend Peter Gomes (a minister at the Memorial Church at Harvard), Trudy Howell (the director of an AIDS-ravaged orphanage in South Africa), and Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard meditate on what the end is to those are going through it, those who survive the loss of others, and what its more cosmic implications are. Yet even here, Smith's approach is never depressing - if there's a single point to her show, it's that dealing with death is perhaps the most important part of dealing with life. These three make that point more clear than almost anyone else.

The exception comes by way of a jolting one-two punch early on. Smith first becomes Tour de France superstar and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong, who isn't particularly introspective - and is willing to admit he's never seen a play. But he is forthright, and his comparing his body to a machine reveals a surprising depth of insight. He won't apologize for who he is, or what he does and how he does it; as he puts it, "failure's death." Smith then immediately segues into Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins, who in responding to Armstrong finishing third in this year's Tour de France, draws careful distinctions between the body and mind, pointing out that, for athletes, there's not much difference between the two.

"His body's not supposed to do that at this age," she marvels. "There is something in an athlete like that, who understands that they were perfectly built for this job, for this task - that there is a feeling of completion that they're driven to." That, and all the unknowables about the human machine, make Let Me Down Easy such an easygoing vehicle for Smith, whose own penchant for go-for-broke commentary, whether about health care or our eternal selves, is its own glowing, self-renewing marathon.

Let Me Down Easy
Through November 8
Second Stage Theatre, 307 West 43rd Street at 8th Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: