There’s a slight mechanical groan when the first trap door opens, and Anna Deavere Smith’s eyes flash. She looks at the hole in the stage, looks at us. It becomes clear that she’s not playing a character anymore. She’s playing herself, the writer and performer of “Let Me Down Easy.” She steps down into what can only be a grave, and starts to dig.
According to the program, “Let Me Down Easy” is “an exploration of the resiliency and vulnerability of the human body.” Imaginably, there’s a lot to unearth. The play takes the same form as Smith’s earlier solo work: several dozen monologues delivered from the point of view of several dozen real people, interviewed and embodied by Smith. The text comes verbatim from Smith’s interviews. In “Let Me Down Easy,” much of the material is pretty heartbreaking: Hurricane Katrina, cancer, the Rwandan genocide. But so much heartbreak, drawn from such disparate places, starts to make a body suspicious. What is the heartbreak pointing to? Am I just being manipulated?
Not manipulated, no. Smith is a superb performer and a smart writer, but there’s too much material to cover in one play. A Harvard professor talks about eugenics. A mother talks about her sick son. A supermodel talks about predatory men. Individually, the monologues are engrossing; they are just too scattered to hold together.
“Let Me Down Easy” is Smith’s first solo show in almost a decade. Most of her earlier plays had narrower scopes. In “Fires in the Mirror,” which focused on a spate of racial violence in 1991 Brooklyn, and “Twilight: Los Angeles 1992,” which captured responses to the Rodney King trials in Los Angeles, Smith generated dramatic heat out of the friction of characters rubbing up against each other. She voiced conflicting attitudes towards questions that didn’t have answers. And the form she chose, in which one actress plays everyone from a Lubavitcher Rabbi to Reverend Al Sharpton, was particularly suited to challenging audiences to empathize with people whose convictions they might not share.
In “Let Me Down Easy,” Smith seems interested in a different kind of dramatic energy. Characters don’t rub up against each other; they echo one another in different registers. There is no friction, only a faint harmony. Lance Armstrong makes an appearance early on, and one of his yellow LIVESTRONG bracelets shows up later on movie critic Joel Siegel; the patterned shirt of a Rwandan healer becomes one of the pieces of laundry that an American mother folds in the hospital waiting room. In the end, it is hard to imagine anyone disagreeing with what seems to be the play’s message: humans are strong, humans suffer.
On a monologue-by-monologue level, strength and suffering make for good theater. Smith reproduces speech habits and physical tics so precisely that it is not hard to imagine the details of a face or a hand. And the real pleasure comes from never losing sight of Smith herself as interviewer and performer. She helps her audience visualize a body that does not exist on stage, and she likewise invites them to imagine a mind and soul that don’t make it into the spoken text. As in all the best theater, the illusion is imperfect. One’s imagination has to step up and get involved.
Almost every individual portrait is rich and moving, but once each portrait ends, it is easy to feel lost. The heart follows Smith wherever she leads it from moment to moment, but the brain scurries around behind, referring anxiously to the play’s stated purpose, and never quite catches up.
David Rockwell’s set is handsome and suggestive, but not always suggestive of anything in particular. The stage itself rests on what looks like a pile of rubble. Is this post-Katrina Louisiana? Rwanda? Some visual metaphor for the mess of individual experience that lies beneath the polished exterior? It feels a bit like yet another idea that the production poses, but doesn’t have time to explore. Director Stephen Wadsworth keeps things moving, and must have been an invaluable outside eye as Smith refined her portraits.
By the end of the performance, graves have opened up all over the stage, and costume pieces and props have accumulated in scattered piles. One wants to, but doesn’t quite, feel the amassed ache of so many stories. There is something to be said for the impossible task of telling them all, though, and we owe something to Anna Deavere Smith for insisting on digging up the stories that are worth hearing.