Let Me Down Easy

By David A. Rosenberg

Solo artist Anna Deavere Smith is no stranger to controversy. Her "Twilight: Los Angeles" was a searing distillation of the 1992 California riots. Her equally powerful "Fires in the Mirror" examined the 1991 Crown Heights race riot. For both, she wove a tapestry of meaning from interviews with various participants.

Now she's back, this time with the world premiere of "Let Me Down Easy." Lightning has not only not struck again, it has fizzled. The new piece at Long Wharf is as pretentious as it is ambitious, banal as it is sometimes unsettling, diffuse as it is detailed, confused as it is intense and enervating in content as it is energetic in performance.

Let it be known that Smith is a terrific mimic, an actress who can create characters in swift strokes. For this piece, she conducted and compressed hundreds of interviews. Ranging from New Orleans to Rwanda, from Yale-New Haven Hospital to the HD Cancer Center in Houston, she chronicles the resilience of the body in the words of athletes, doctors, patients, parents, nurses, teachers, journalists, the ill and the dying.

But she fails to find a coherent core, a narrative structure, unlike her work on "Twilight" and "Fires." The first act of this evening (overlong at two-and-three-quarter hours) focuses on a sports columnist, choreographer, model, rodeo rider, manager of a "sex hotel" in Johannesburg and familiar figures like Tour de France champ Lance Armstrong and feminist writer-performer Eve Ensler.

By accident or design, the anecdotal results are condescending and we laugh at these people. ("I don't send anyone away," says the choreographer about auditioners. "They self eliminate.") Smith also makes racial points, such as quoting heavyweight boxer Michael Bentt as saying, "You have to damn near kill a white fighter to get a decision." In a riff on Marion Jones's conviction for lying about steroid use, Smith quotes columnist Sally Jenkins' saying that racism is "bubbling under the surface of every sports story."

While part one celebrates the feats a body can accomplish, the second more political half shows its vulnerabilities. Smith equates genocide in Rwanda with the after-effects of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, one of her reductio ad absurdum leaps on what happens to bodies in war and health care. Combining elements of Michael Moore's "Sicko," the film "Hotel Rwanda" and Spike Lee's definitive TV series, "When the Levees Broke," Smith struggles to tie everything together. Yet, without a unifying event, what happens to "bodies" is so generalized it just won't wash.

Occasionally, something striking happens, as in a lecture on why health care is like a pot with holes or the existential sadness nurses feel when a patient dies. Interviews with Ann Richards and Joel Siegel at least have an emotional ring, but Smith can do no more than end with bumper-sticker suggestions: "Use every day to make a party" or "You don't learn how to die; You learn how to live."

Stephen Wadsworth's direction is more about where Smith should sit or stand than how to inject dramatic coherence. The set, costume, lighting and sound designs also try to impose order. But it's a lost cause. Until Smith decides what her true purposes are, "Let Me Down Easy" will remain an exhausting, egotistical evening.

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