Thursday, October 8, 2009

Onstage Estrogen

Let Me Down Easy
Written and performed by Anna Deavere Smith
Performances September 15-November 8, 2009
Second Stage Theater, 307 West 43rd Street

Wishful Drinking
Written and performed by Carrie Fisher
Performances September 22, 2009-January 3, 2010
Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street

Love, Loss, and What I Wore
Written by Nora and Delia Ephron
With rotating casts (Samantha Bee, Tyne Daly, Katie Finneran, Natasha Lyonne, Rosie O’Donnell from September 21-October 18)
Performances September 21-December 13, 2009
Westside Theater, 407 West 43rd Street

The Night Watcher
Written and performed by Charlayne Woodard
Performances September 22-October 31, 2009
59 E 59 Theater, 59 East 59th Street

Although men are getting the most ink this fall theater season—Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman in A Steady Rain and Jude Law in Hamlet—it’s women crowding stages so far. A trio of one-woman shows and another of monologues and dialogues written, starring and directed by women give the season’s opening an estrogen-filled boost.

The most anticipated of these shows is the latest theater piece by Anna Deavere Smith, Let Me Down Easy, her first solo work in a decade (House Arrest, her exploration of the presidency, played the Public Theater in 2000). Nothing if not timely, Let Me Down Easy tackles the health care system, with side trips to seriously ill patients and experts and their insights. No soapbox prosthelytizer, Smith shrewdly keeps the dilemma moral rather than partisan through her wide-ranging selection of subjects.

Let Me Down Easy is structured like her other theater pieces, with Smith the journalist interviewing a cross-section of 20 people (doctors, professors, terminally ill and other patients—some famous, some not) about life-or-death situations, including cyclist Lance Armstrong, Governor Ann Richards and movie reviewer Joel Siegel, all cancer victims (only Armstrong has survived). Then Smith the performer takes over in a 95-minute show in which she mimics them (sometimes expertly, other times less so) in selected excerpts from her interviews. Leonard Foglia’s direction keeps things moving, shifting the visuals enough to keep the show from stagnating—particularly the startling use of a video camera to bring two subjects into closer focus.

Let Me Down Easy has sundry virtues, notably Smith’s uncanny ability to distill the essence of her interviewees with a combination of their pithy comments and her impersonations. For example, Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins bounces around in her chair as she talks about the superhuman quality of athletes like Armstrong, while New Orleans physician Kiersta Kurtz-Burke licks her lips absentmindedly telling her sadly familiar tale of caring for Charity Hospital patients in Katrina‘s aftermath.

The nature of Smith’s process almost unavoidably makes Let Me Down Easy seem like a highlight reel or an overview; there must be more interesting commentary on recorded tapes somewhere. But Let Me Down Easy humanizes our current health care debate by giving a real face to those most affected by it: too bad the people who most need to see it won’t.

By contrast, Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking comes off as an amusingly cynical look at show business in-breeding padded with personal anecdotes. Forever remembered as Princess Leia in Star Wars, Fisher doesn’t miss a chance to joke about that smash-hit movie and George Lucas’s marketing genius (a Princess Leia Pez dispenser, anyone?). She also dons the infamous donut hairdo and brings a willing gentleman onstage to do the same; throughout the show, she tosses off self-effacing quips about surviving her career, her addictions and her failed relationships.

She also dishes about her famous parents, Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, using a black board with photos and arrows to explore “Hollywood Inbreeding 101,” occasioned by her own daughter’s flirtation with Liz Taylor’s grandson, in an attempt to discover whether the two teens are in fact related.

Wishful Drinking has its share of gossipy laughs, even if Fisher’s attempts to endear herself to her loyal audience by spilling her guts about her foibles seem too calculated by half. Director Tony Taccone provides the show a glossy sheen that makes it all go down easily.

Love, Loss and What I Wore, from the book by Ilene Beckerman, is adapted by Nora and Delia Ephron with additional stories by several other writers. In this harmless 80-minute show directed by Karen Carpenter, five actresses (in rotating casts) sit down and, dressed in elegant black, relay tales about Gingy’s eventful life seen through her clothes, interspersed with amusing vignettes about women’s clothing foibles in general, like the genuinely sidesplitting “I Hate My Purse.” As the talented Tyne Daly (who plays Gingy), Rosie O’Donnell, Samantha Bee, Katie Finneran and Natasha Lyonne talk about universal female subjects—trying on outfits, picking out shoes, wearing gifts from clueless mothers—there is universal nodding in agreement from its target audience; for others, the show provides generic laughs and the occasional glimmer of emotion.

In her latest solo play, The Night Watcher, the talented actress Charlayne Woodard takes what in other hands would merely be trendy subject matter—a childless woman’s relationships with others’ children—and personalizes it so thoroughly that it becomes a touching journey of self-discovery.

As a working actress, Woodard has decided not to have children of her own, but she and her husband are definitely not without children in their lives: The Child Watcher is an engrossing look at how compassion—always in short supply—informs her intimate relationships with nieces, nephews and godchildren. There’s her teenage goddaughter Indira, who gets pregnant and is afraid to tell her mother, so she tells her “auntie” instead: when Mom finds out that Charlayne not only knew first but has been—gulp—helping out the young girl, she blows her stack. (All eventually is mended.) There’s also little Mya, granddaughter of a friend of a good friend, whom the actress has become very close to; after continually inquiring about Charlayne’s beloved dog (who recently died), Mya asks her, in heartrending sincerity, “Auntie Charlayne, can I be your doggie now?”

Woodard, a wonderfully rubber-faced actress who makes her juvenile characters come to life with tiny vocal inflections or child-like movements, relates the emotional well-being of both the children and herself with an empathy that is contagious. And Daniel Sullivan’s subtle direction underscores the immediacy and universality of Woodard’s story, beautifully told and staged.

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