With House Arrest, Anna Deavere Smith seems to have outlived her usefulness. Her two previous one-woman theater pieces, Fires in the Mirror, about the Crown Heights racial violence, and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, about the Rodney King fracas and aftermath, zeroed in on dire specific dramas seen from various angles through numerous interviews she conducted. The new work is far more prolix, diffuse, and ultimately self-indulgent.
The verbose subtitle gives the vagueness away: A Search for the American Character in and Around the White House, Past and Present. The title, House Arrest, coyly refers to the presidency: the White House as part imprisonment, part fishbowl for its occupant. If Deavere Smith wanted to record presidential miseries past and present, that might work. But to interview, over five years, 425 people, some of them scarcely or not at all relevant to the ostensible topic, smells of academic boondoggle to me. It allows you to meet some interestingly smart or amusingly obtuse people, and collect all kinds of grant money, while weaving a latter-day Penelope’s web, unraveled and recommenced again and again.
So it is that House Arrest has been performed in several versions, previously with twelve to fourteen actors, until it reached the current format, which may not yet be definitive. Here the set (by Richard Hoover) is more elaborate than usual for Smith, as are other production values, and Jo Bonney was brought in as directorial consultant, whatever that means. There is now elaborate crosscutting between different interviews, an occasional offstage voice, and artificial dialogues based on actual statements that were made elsewhere to others.
Miss Smith leaves in all the speakers’ false starts, unfinished sentences, repetitions, uhs, and ers, which don’t help either clarity or flow. Such matters as Jefferson’s relationship with his black slave are given equal weight with Studs Terkel’s pontifications or a restaurateur’s reminiscences of Jimmy Carter’s food choices. Do we need several accounts of Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche’s visiting the White House? And why the lengthy recollection by an imprisoned black woman of standing by while a brutish husband beat her daughter to death?
Half good as an actress and half good as an impressionist, Miss Smith cannot forge a whole of those disparate halves. But she has garnered her MacArthur “genius” fellowship, two concurrent academic chairs, and occasional movie roles, which should keep her solvent while she diddles away.