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by Margaret Croyden

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

House Arrest
by Anne Devere Smith
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
Opened March 26, 2000
Reviewed March 27, 2000 by Margaret Croyden

Anne Devere Smith, the superb actor-writer and social commentator, whose monologues on the state of the world have captured the imagination of audiences since her 1981 debut, is again on stage--solo. In preparation for her new work "House Arrest" she has chosen over fifty people out of the 400 she interviewed, and commingled their words (and personalities) into theatrical form. With a quick change of hat, coat, props, and a bit of furniture, she acts out all the people herself-- a formidable task.

She begins a conversation with famous author Studs Terkle, a shrewd political observer, whom she asks to define the American character, or what he considers the defining moment in American history. To supply the answer herself, she shits the scene to a depiction of American Presidents: Thomas Jefferson and his attitude to slavery; Abraham Lincoln and his tragic end; the "family" of Franklin D. Roosevelt; the assination of Kennedy, and the scandals of Bill Clinton. These vignettes are accompanied by conversations with, and observations by, scholars, historians, politicians, film makers, tour guides, white house cooks, lawyers, journalists, and popular personalities. Former Governor of Texas, Ann Richards describes her reaction to the Kennedy tragedy; Alexis Herman, U.S.Secretary of Labor and Maggie Williams, Former Chief of Staff to Hillary Clinton detail their troubles during the Clinton administration; Bill Clinton is interrogated by the Starr people, followed by the President himself talking about his problems.

Working with this extensive and complicated material, all based on the actual interviews, Ms. Smith assumes the mannerisms, intonations, and speech patterns of the interviewees: she captures their smiles, their pauses, their hesitations, and repetitions. She gives life to their body language as well: the lifting of an eyebrow, the movement of a hand, the smirk on a pair of supercilious lips, the air of self importance and conceit--she has an extraordinary talent for perceiving the person behind the words.

Unfortunately, the evening does not hold together--a central theme is missing. Is she criticizing the presidents, or satirizing the politicians and journalists? Is she condemning Jefferson's position on slavery, or opening yet another a dialogue on the subject? What is her attitude toward Lincoln, FDR, and Clinton? Her views are shrouded in ambiguity, and she is not helped by the numerous projections flashed across the backdrop, images that are so famous and familiar that their intended impact is lost.

Some of the people included in the piece are pointless as well. One wonders at some of Mr. Smith's choices. For example, Gloria Steinheim and Peggy Noonan, the Republican speech writer, are given short shrift in a skimpy monologue, while Anne Richards in a long piece (though very well acted) adds nothing new to the Kennedy murder. Neither does a rehash of Clinton's interrogation: we have had enough of that; we have no wish to hear it again. Ms. Smith's attempt at satirizing journalists is only partially successful. Christopher Hitchens, a pompous talking head, who had tried to incriminate a longtime friend in a purgery charge during the Clinton debacle, is depicted here babbling about something incoherently. The scene starts out amusingly, but gathers little heat and fizzles out abruptly. Similarly, the Michael Isikoff segment, the sleazy Newsweek reporter, who leaked the Clinton dirt, and capitalized on it by writing a book, and appearing endlessly on TV. These two reporters would have been perfect subjects for ironic laughter, but their scenes are unfocused and the satire is lost. On the other hand, her depiction of R. W. Apple Jr, of the "New York Times" captured the reporter's pomposity and his insatiable interest in food. But the inclusion of the tragic story of a mother who allowed her child to be beaten to death, though movingly acted, has little relevance to the rest of the piece.

Nevertheless, Ms. Smith is a gifted mimic, a superb actress, and a witty writer. She is a knowledgeable and sophisticated observer of people and their foibles. Though "False Arrest" is not a deep piece; it is not shallow either. Mainly, it is a wonderfully acted play, full of endearing, insightful moments. If one wants to see an unique actor-writer create a world of fascinating people--solo--run down to the Public Theater. You will not be disappointed. [Croyden]

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