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Drama Rush

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Let Me Down Easy
At Second Stage Theatre
In 2000, Anna Deavere Smith came to the Yale School of Medicine to interview patients and staff about their experiences; at the end of her stay, she performed a show, based on those interviews, called Rounding It Out. Substantially expanded, the play is now called Let Me Down Easy, and it’s having its New York premiere. Poetic and broad-ranging where Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 and Fires in the Mirror were fierce and narrowly focused, it has moments of great beauty but feels mostly as though it had been rewritten and developed within an inch of its life. I’d diagnose this play about health, medicine, and death, nine years in the making, with a case of overwork.

Smith isn’t an actress so much as a master impressionist, re-creating her interviewees’ every hem, haw, and (as her script at one point specifies) thirteen-beat pause with a transcriptionist’s care. She’s by definition incapable of transcending her material, and would be doing her subjects a disservice if she ever did. The play is thus strongest when she tells the stories of people on the front lines, like a doctor at Charity Hospital in New Orleans during Katrina, or a cancer patient who just happens to be a dean at the Yale School of Medicine. The show’s power completely dissipates when she turns to play pontificating academics or celebrities like Lance Armstrong or Lauren Hutton.

Smith is a crucial artist who takes on questions no one else bothers to address, and it’s too bad this uneven anthology of a play has kept her out of New York theaters for so long. Was Rounding It Out so inferior to this production that it was worth years of extra interviews, a task that seems to have fuzzied rather than sharpened her aims? Let Me Down Easy, for all its thoughtfulness, just let me down. –D.K.

Love, Loss and What I Wore
At the Westside Theatre
In Nora and Delia Ephron’s Love, Loss and What I Wore, a rotating series of celebrity women (currently: Tyne Daly, Rosie O’Donnell, Samantha Bee, Katie Finneran, and Natasha Lyonne) tell stories of bra-fitting, high heels, and handbag regret. Much of the material comes from Ilene Beckerman’s thin but charming memoir of the same title, but a lot of it was generated by the Ephrons through theatrical-crowd-sourcing: They sent e-mail questionnaires to 100 of their friends, then fashioned their answers into a play.

Well, into an evening. The show’s theatricality is nil; the women of What I Wore sit on stools reading from scripts, and barely even try on accents, let alone acting. The two attempts at Anna Deavere Smith–like characters—a Latina gang moll bragging about her coat, and a pair of brides telling the story of their wedding outfits—fall flat. Most of the stories feel vaguely universal rather than prickly and specific, and so, like its Westside predecessor—Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues—I imagine this will run for years, or as long as there are bachelorette parties and mother-daughter weekends to feed it. (There may be no quieter, more solitary place in New York right now than the men’s room at the Westside Theatre. You could write a novel in there.) The current cast is clearly having a lovely time, especially O’Donnell, who reminds us that she has no equal as a punch-line delivery service. If you go, though, do it by November 15, so you can see Daly, who performs the story adapted most closely from Beckerman’s book. Her warmth and good humor, like the perfect black turtleneck, are irreplaceable. –D.K.


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