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|A CurtainUp Review
House Arrest: A Search for the American Character in and Around the White House, Past and Present
Anna Deavere Smith's latest example of her unique genre of theatrical journalism made me think of sandwiches. Twilight: Los Angeles about the Rodney King riots and Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn about disturbances between Jews and African-Americans were two-deckers, each with a single strong flavor neatly layered between the slices of bread. House Arrest is more like one of those overstuffed, hard to get your mouth around triple-deckers with somewhat too many ingredients.
To continue the metaphor, the restaurant manager (director Jo Bonney) has insured a beautiful presentation (aided by Richard Hoover's set and Batwin + Robin Productions projections). The chef ( Ms. Smith) displays her usual mimic's flair and has packed her ingredients between crusty and colorful sandwich covers (with Smith as Studs Terkel, whose own pioneering oral biographies are the foundation stone for her own methodology).
It's understandable and admirable that Ms. Smith is willing to risk moving beyond the safety of the style and format that have brought her success that includes a MacArthur foundation"genius fellowship." Thus in DC and LA workshop versions of House Arrest, she ceded the stage to other actors. Reports from those who saw those workshops, indicate that Ms. Smith's playwriting technique works best when the audience steps into her observer's shoes while she portrays all the characters. In the just opened production she has wisely returned to that formula, this time experimenting with more elaborate staging. Thanks to Ms. Bonney and the design team, this adds great theatrical flair and, like this season's big one-person hit, Fully Committed, elevates the one-person play to a satisfyingly full-featured level. The spiffier staging notwithstanding, Smith relies, as she has in the past, on just a few costume props to effect her metamorphosis from one tape recorded character to another.
If we used a rating system, House Arrest would thus score tops in terms of staging and performance. The play itself, which marks another departure from tried-and-true-Smith, is where that overstuffed sandwich metaphor kicks in.
In abandoning the tight focus on a single event for the broader-based and more amorphous theme of the subtitle, Ms. Smith seems to have lost some of her acute editorial sense for capturing the characters and words that best support her aim. Looking at the list of the more than four hundred people she interviewed, there's a sense that some of the people who didn't make the final cut should have. Conversely, some who made it into the script don't seem to fit -- like the Chez Panisse chef Alice Waters, and Anita Hill and Paulette Jenkins who's in a Maryland prison for having allowed her drug addicted lover kill her child. Fortunately, even these less successful characters are beautifully portrayed and the flaws are offset by the performer-playwright's effortless shifts from one character to another. The speakers' uhs and ahems are captured along with priceless little personality revelations. It's just that by filling her "sandwich" to the brim, the power of her single issue plays tends to get lost in an at times generic sounding roundup of familiar facts.
The play's main sections -- "Cohabitation", "The Grand Deaths of the Race"" and "Bit by Bit, Drop By Drop" all have excellent segments. In "Cohabitation", which establishes a continuing pattern of past and present presidential sexual peccadillos, there's a particularly clever juxtaposition between Cinder Stanton a historian at Monticello and Penny Kiser a Monticello tour guide. "The Grand Deaths of the Race" section is especially effective in dramatizing the ever-present specter of violence against presidents.
The peripheral themes. -- the "moral slippage" surrounding the highest office and the press with its sense of entitlement and its power to affect rather than report on events -- are where House Arrest tends to lose its sense of cohesiveness and distinctive voice. The various interviews with the press are not all equally compelling, though there are some memorable bits and pieces. In the latter category there's R. W. Apple's (NYTimes journalist) interrupting himself to ask the waiter to make the shrimp curry a bit hot. . . and Michael K. Frisby ( of the Wall Street Journal) trying to explain why a picture of him and Clinton bowling in the White House bowling alley would benefit the President -- and, as importantly, make his mom and aunts very happy.
The Studs Terkel interviews that serve as the binder to hold the mass of opinions together, most trenchantly summarize the condition of the presidential character and the human species in general. In the opening interview the moral slippage is expressed through a delicious play on words: "Watergate. . .moral slippage. . . a combination of things. . .not the crowning touch, but the clowning touch!. . .It's not just Clinton and Monica. We all are wearing the fright wig and putty nose and baggy pants . . . we're all demeaned by it. . ." In response to Smith's question about the human condition, he posed the same query to a baby. The infant burst into laughter, upon which Terkel declared "Thank God. . .a human reaction. we haven't lost yet." Maybe, before Ms. Smith goes on the road for her next play, she and Mr. Terkel ought to spend an evening on stage together.