Anna Deavere Smith can’t seem to get out of the hospital. In addition to her featured role as a no-nonsense administrator opposite Edie Falco in Showtime’s Nurse Jackie, 4 of the 20 characters she portrays in her engrossing new drama, Let Me Down Easy, are either hospital patients or physicians. And the entire 95-minute show centers on doctors, nurses, illness, health care, physiology, spirituality, and death.
Playwright-performer Smith interviewed 20 men and women from her aunt Lorraine to seven-time Tour de France champ Lance Armstrong and fashioned their answers into touching but never treacly monologues. (She calls her genre in which she performs verbatim excerpts from her interviews while adopting her subjects’ voices and gestures ''organic poetry.'') Easy is her most relatable work not because of its topicality (though there are a few jabs about flat fees, deductibles, and doctors ''tryin’ to rape me to make more money to pay their Mercedes Benz bills''), but because of its universality: New Yorkers invariably felt more connected to Fires in the Mirror, which focused on the 1991 Crown Heights riots; Californians had a similar bond to Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, her chronicle of the days following the Rodney King verdict. Of course, we all haven’t been thrown off a bull like rodeo rider Brent Williams or undergone chemotherapy like late film critic Joel Siegel, but Smith knows that we’ve all thought about our own mortality. ''Does it scare you, the idea of dying?'' asks one Easy character. ''It’s sad, right?''
Don’t let the depressing subject matter scare you off. There are plenty of lighter, humorous stories, especially in the beginning: Choreographer Elizabeth Streb relates how she accidentally caught fire while performing a 40th-birthday dance for her girlfriend set to Melissa Etheridge’s ''I’m the Only One,'' while writer Eve Ensler discourses on sex (''I believe in sex. Like above everything in the whole world…. It’s just genius''), anorexia (''You can’t think much when you’ve eaten a raisin a day''), and Tina Turner (''You can watch her career where she literally lands in her vagina''). And then the stories get more pensive, more philosophical, more profound: Perhaps the most affecting and tear-jerking comes from Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, a physician at a New Orleans public hospital whose desire to treat patients ''like they are the Shah of Iran coming to the Mayo Clinic'' clashed with her resources in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. ''We are gonna give you the best possible care,'' she sighs. ''But we can’t make the government and FEMA come and get us.''
Smith’s greatest gifts as a performer are her OCD-like attention to detail she retains all of her characters’ unique speech patterns (every ''you know,'' ''it’s like,'' swear word, stutter, sentence fragment) and her magnificent, versatile voice. It’s what allows her to shift so seamlessly from, say, heavyweight boxer Michael Bennt to hospitalized evangelist Hazel Merritt. (Smith might add a jacket or a pair of glasses, perhaps wrap herself in a scarf, but otherwise she wears a plain ivory blouse and navy pin-striped trousers.) Each time Smith undergoes a transformation, a supertitle, with the person’s name and occupation, is projected above the stage e.g. Ann Richards, Former Governor, Texas. But you won’t need it. Smith tells you everything you need to know. A–
(Tickets: 2st.com or 212-246-4422)