One is more than enough Review: Anna Deavere Smith's compelling 'House Arrest' is rich in the words of real people. The trouble comes with the play within a play.

November 22, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Anna Deavere Smith's newest work, "House Arrest: First Edition," is twice the play it needs to be.

The problem isn't just length. It's that "House Arrest," which is receiving its world premiere at Washington's Arena Stage, is literally two plays fused uncomfortably into one.

One of these plays is fascinating and informative -- Smith's idiosyncratic brand of real-life interviews, re-enacted and pieced together around a theme: in this case, the press and the presidency.

The other play -- a fictitious account of the trials and tribulations of a struggling theater company -- is extraneous and distracting.

To start with the good play, audiences familiar with Smith's last two Broadway triumphs -- "Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities," which the Baltimore native performed at Center Stage in 1995, and "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992" -- will notice one immediate difference. Unlike those shows, which were one-person plays performed with the chameleon-like Smith taking all the roles, "House Arrest" has a cast of 14 (although Smith made a brief uncredited appearance in the role of President Clinton on opening night).

Smith conducted all of the more than 300 interviews for "House Arrest" herself; three dozen made it into the show. She then taught her method of re-creating the speakers' speech patterns to the cast members, who have been directed by Mark Rucker.

Among the many telling accounts are those delivered by Michi Barall as a U.S. News & World Report photographer who explains that, like the Secret Service, his job is to keep the president in "your viewfinder all the damned time"; Karen Kandel as Labor Secretary Alexis Herman telling a grim childhood story about her father's being assaulted by the Ku Klux Klan; and Reese Madigan as former presidential adviser and spokesman George Stephanopou- los advocating "spinning" the news as he literally whirls around the stage on a turntable.

Using text taken from archival sources, "House Arrest" also includes some historical characters, such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt (given an odd but uncanny impersonation by 11-year-old actor Frankie Muniz) and a former slave (whose moving depiction by Pamela J. Gray contrasts with her earlier humorous depiction of a Monticello tour guide trying to justify Jefferson's ownership of slaves).

The emphasis on slavery may seem a stretch from the play's theme, which Smith broadened in the course of her research to encompass the country's relationship with the office of the presidency. If anything, however, that theme becomes even more amorphously broad than that, expanding to include such characters as a restaurateur and a fitness instructor.

The furthest stretch, however, is the fictitious play-within-a-play that is interwoven with the factual interviews. The

soap-opera-like plot concerns a theater company that takes in three ex-convicts, gets invited to Clinton's second inauguration and winds up spending the night at a Washington jail. Not only is this plot highly contrived, but the characters -- the art-for-art's-sake director, humorless playwright, self-indulgent actress -- are stereotypes. At best, the whole thing comes off as a silly, tacked-on appendage to the more serious matters at hand.

Several of Smith's interviewees were in the audience the night I saw "House Arrest," but not President Clinton. The president does attend Washington theater, however, and those occasions usually begin with a pack of photographers getting a shot of him waving to the audience.

The photo is part of what Stephanopoulos refers to in the play as "the death watch." (The show's title is intended, at least in part, to suggest that the constant surveillance by the press as well as the Secret Service gives the chief of staff the feeling of being under "house arrest.")

Such grim notions are precisely the sorts of insights "House Arrest" excels at conveying. The trouble is, right now they are repeatedly obscured by the melodramatic play-within-a-play.

Anna Deavere Smith's distinctive genius, however, lies in using the real words of real people to demonstrate how truth can be genuinely more captivating than fiction. She's so good at this that even a fiction she creates herself can't -- and shouldn't have to -- compete.

"House Arrest," which has a budget of $2 million, is co-produced by three other theaters -- the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, the Intiman Theatre in Seattle and the Goodman Theatre in Chicago -- where it will receive subsequent, revised productions. Maybe by the time it becomes "House Arrest: Second Edition" it will focus on what Smith does best -- a brilliant juxtaposition of just the facts, ma'am.

'House Arrest: First Edition'

Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. S.W., Washington

When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; selected matinees at 2: 30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, and noon Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Through Jan. 4

Tickets: $26-$45

Call: 202-488-3300

Pub Date: 11/22/97

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