It’s a paradox that each of us both has a body and is a body. Those bodies can delight us and surprise us, can pain us and fail us. Characters in Anna Deavere Smith’s Let Me Down Easy, at Second Stage, and Nathan Louis Jackson’s Broke-ology, at Lincoln Center, explore the problem of such fallible physiques. Smith’s show offers some solutions: care, compassion, a functioning health care system. Jackson suggests that in the absence of such factors, tragedy ensues.
Smith begins her work on a pristine, all-white set—and promptly wrecks it. The space soon teems with wine glasses, beer bottles, pillows, blankets, several meals, various outfits, and a jump rope. (Rock stars have trashed hotel rooms less assiduously.) This debris is the by-product of the 20 characters Smith plays in her solo show Let Me Down Easy, her digressive yet generous meditation on the body’s abilities and limits.
Though more coherent than in its workshop production last year, this piece lacks the lucidity and crackle of many of Smith’s earlier works, such as Fires in the Mirror. The celebrity quotient is somewhat high and often ancillary—Lauren Hutton on good doctors, Eve Ensler on “who lives in their vagina.” At times, the broad topic seems to overwhelm Smith, and she stuffs the show with competing philosophies from doctors, patients, priests, a musicologist, Joel Siegel.
Despite the claims of a recent New York Times Magazine article, Smith is not a particularly gifted mimic, nor does she vanish into her characters. In translating interviews into theatrical monologues, she tends to identify a facial or physical tic—lip-licking for Dr. Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, a splayed leg stance for boxer Michael Bentt—and conjure a role from that gesture. Smith never disappears; she merely adjusts herself to each new persona. Somehow, performer and character seem to coexist in the same body, like a set of transparencies slightly misaligned. It’s a fascinating technique—and, in a show concerned with the body’s intransigence, a fitting and moving one.
Broke-ology‘s William (Wendell Pierce), a father afflicted with multiple sclerosis, feels betrayed by his body. He tells his adult sons that while he knows they could assist him—cooking, cleaning, preparing injections—nothing addresses his sense of his own infirmity. “I know all the ways to make it easier on me,” he says, “but I don’t want easy. I want things back to the way they were. I want to care for myself.”
William cannot, so his younger son, Malcolm (Alano Miller), a budding scientist, has come home to this poor neighborhood of Kansas City. Malcolm longs to return to school, but his older brother, Ennis (a charismatic Francois Battiste), himself a new father, thinks that Malcolm ought to stay and tend to William. Both men love their dad immensely, yet resent the care and expense of his illness. The should-I-stay-or-should-I-go plot structure is grimly formulaic, and some of the scenes sag, but Jackson displays admirable tenderness, aided by Thomas Kail’s sensitive direction. The play presents William’s failing health as an unsolvable dilemma, but in some of Jackson’s best scenes—a vigorous game of dominoes, a dance routine with a garden gnome—the playwright presents having and being a body as simply wonderful.