Let Me Down Easy
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American Theater Company. By Anna Deavere Smith. Directed by Bonnie Metzgar. With Usman Ally. Running time: 1hr 50mins; no intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
Writer-performer Anna Deavere Smith is known for interview-based solo pieces like Fires in the Mirror, about the 1991 riot in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, about the riots there following the Rodney King verdict. In such works, Smith interviews various participants about their experiences, then recreates her interview subjects' responses as a performer.
In 2008's Let Me Down Easy, performed here by American Theater Company ensemble member Usman Ally, Smith talked to a number of respondents about their experiences with health care and, ultimately, their relationships to death.
Smith's rarefied circle of interviewees here can feel a little silly at times; talking to people like ’70s supermodel Lauren Hutton or The Vagina Monologues author Eve Ensler seems more an opportunity for the performer to mimic the subjects' mannerisms and eccentricities than to hear their insights.
But Smith does find unexpected perpectives the likes of a Notre Dame musicologist's appreciation of Schubert and the effect of his syphilitic death sentence on his music. There are stories from regular patients and doctors, too (the piece could use more of these and less Lance Armstrong, frankly).
Ally, reportedly the first to perform this work other than its author, marvelously embodies its 20 characters with remarkable specificity and empathy. Director Bonnie Metzgar smartly choreographs the shifts, though there's a bit of a disconnect between Ally's need to play the room and the occasional one-to-one address in the text. If his real-life characters offer a feast for thought, Ally's warm, tour de force performance makes it go down easy.