Playwright Anna Deavere Smith is angry, cynical and wordy in “House Arrest: First Edition,” her latest thought-provoking journey into the American psyche. Renowned for her solo performances in which she impersonates real people saying their own words (“Fires in the Mirror,” “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992”), Smith has expanded on that device with a 14-person cast that speaks the words of her interviewees.
Thirty-seven characters are portrayed, an intriguing mix that ranges from luminaries to former slaves. The play, premiering at Washington’s Kreeger Theater, is billed as new American theater, and whether or not that’s so, it certainly is a bold step for regionals from a business standpoint: Its $2 million cost was financed by private and public grants and an unprecedented coalition of Washington’s Arena Stage, L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum, Chicago’s Goodman and Seattle’s Intiman Theater (see related story, page 69).The result is a lavish and sometimes self-indulgent exercise that is most noteworthy for its scope, elaborate staging and defiantly disjointed book. Smith’s panoply of soliloquies is the product of hundreds of interviews with people, famous and otherwise, conducted over the past two years. The topics are social and political, weighted toward Washington and updated with material as fresh as last week’s headlines. “House Arrest” is a broad and remarkably textured look at issues of racism, sexism and hypocrisy. Recurring subjects include presidential leadership and the unforgiving politics of the nation’s capital.
Among the figures re-created through their own words are political consultant James Carville, broadcaster Sam Donaldson and White House aides George Stephanopoulos, DeeDee Myers and Mike McCurry. Extensive attention is given to the insights of several black women, including Anita Hill, Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman and Maggie Williams, former chief of staff to the first lady.
Also included are unheralded figures such as a former slave, a persecuted seamstress for Mary Todd Lincoln and various prison inmates. The words of the historical characters are taken from archives.
The vignettes are presented within the context of a multiracial acting troupe rehearsing a play about Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with slave Sally Hemming. That thread is then laced, sometimes awkwardly, with Smith’s parade of topical pursuits.
Clearly Smith has a gift for reaching into the soul of contemporary Americans. Her picture is not pretty, and there is precious little levity to lighten the load. Nor is it brief, clocking in at three hours and 15 minutes. This is a play with attitude, emphasized by Mark Rucker’s direction and the abrupt lunges from one time period to another. It’s an effective technique, as when a romp through Jefferson’s bedroom is followed by a spirited discussion of Aretha Franklin and Bonnie Raitt
An expert cast gamely handles the rigors, and tech credits are first-rate (including Douglas Stein’s multilayered set, Candice Donnelly’s costumes and Scott Zielinski’s lighting). Liberal use of turntables will strike some as excessive, as will a brief scene featuring an army of exercise bikes. But in many respects, excess is what this play is about.