Anna Deavere Smith takes a long, loose look at the moral history of the American presidency, and by extension the American character, in “House Arrest,” her latest theatrical collage of oral histories. Working on a larger canvas than she has in her past shows, “Fires in the Mirror” and “Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 ,” this enormously talented writer-performer doesn’t succeed in turning her material into a cohesive and cogent work of theater. Drawing on some 400 interviews as well as historical material, “House Arrest” is unfocused and discursive, but Deavere Smith has a naturally vibrant stage presence that gives an arresting human dimension to this sometimes unwieldy show. The voices she so vividly brings to life are all worthy of attention, the issues they raise of continually engaging interest.
“House Arrest” itself has a long history, having previously been staged at Washington’s Arena Theater and at the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. In the D.C. edition in November 1997, the author stayed offstage and a troupe of actors performed the piece. When the scandal surrounding the Clinton impeachment exploded into the news, Deavere Smith revised the play — which concentrates on the idea of the President as the country’s moral figurehead — to incorporate the unhappily germane new revelations. The L.A. version featured both the author and a cast of actors.
At the Public Theater the author is onstage alone, accompanied only by props and costumes and projections that help identify the almost 50 different people who make appearances. The latest version has been reconfigured in collaboration with “directorial consultant” Jo Bonney, and it moves smoothly even when it’s not exactly clear where it’s going. The solo format has likely improved the piece — the single performer gives the show a sharp focus the writing eschews, even if it places heavy demands on Deavere Smith. She carries the burden lightly , with just a trace of perspiration developing on her brow as she moves from persona to persona, donning and doffing costumes quickly.
Deavere Smith’s fellow oral historian Studs Terkel, warmly and colorfully evoked in one of her liveliest impersonations, opens and closes the show with funny ruminations on the “moral slippage” that’s taken place over the course of American history. The show then moves somewhat haphazardly through the histories of key American presidencies, beginning with Thomas Jefferson’s. The pitstop at Monticello, which concentrates on the Sally Hemings question, illustrates that major fault lines in the American character date back to even our earliest leaders and our earliest moral crisis, the slavery question.
Once upon a time, however, presidential moral failings were glossed over by the history books. Not any more — now even the sexual history of a president dead for two centuries is the subject of intense scrutiny and continual newspaper headlines. The changing role of the media in the coverage of the president is the show’s other major theme.
Walter Trohan, a member of the press corps at the Roosevelt White House, recalls the days when mentioning FDR’s mistress in the papers would have been unthinkable. A far cry from today’s vulture mentality, you might think, until Deavere Smith jumps into the skin of Michael K. Frisby, a correspondent from the Wall Street Journal, who unsettlingly implies that if Clinton were to invite the journalistic wolf pack to a bowling match at the White House, well, “you might give him the benefit of the doubt.”
The issue of press coverage leads the show into a detour about the Lincoln assassination — and on to the question of assassination in general — that doesn’t seem entirely germane to the show’s focus on the moral qualities of our leaders (Lincoln’s aren’t really discussed much). The first act ends, however, with a photo both touching and somehow chilling that brings us right back to the sex question: the young Bill Clinton greeting John F. Kennedy.
Act two concentrates on the Clinton era, but the focus, thankfully, isn’t entirely on the Lewinsky scandal. A digression featuring Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter and others discussing the amorous behavior of Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche at a White House function seems somewhat extraneous, but it’s amusing in its depiction of the uneasily shifting sensibilities inside the Beltway, where a history of buttoned-down conservatism vies with a new vogue for political correctness.
The political persecution of various women in prominent positions is explored in a section subtitled “Sending the Canaries into the Mines,” in which Anital Hill, Hillary Clinton assistant Maggie Williams and Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman talk about the bruising battles they’ve faced. From here it’s on to the tale of the Blue Dress and other all too familiar details of the sex scandal that either permanently disgraced the office of the presidency or merely illuminated a longstanding truth about it, depending on your point of view.
As can be seen, Deavere Smith throws so many issues into the mix here that she can’t possibly succeed in shedding new light on many of them. In addition to everything else, the show concludes with brief interludes about the hot-button topics of abortion issue and child abuse — one of the most harrowing sections is a long monologue told by Paulette Jenkins, a woman who listened from the bedroom while her husband beat her daughter to death in the bathroom.
It’s hard to know what conclusions we’re supposed to draw from the juxtapositions Deaver Smith makes — is the ugly saga of the Lewinsky affair meant to have some relationship to the benighted morality of Jenkins, or to the righteousness of Operation Rescue’s Flip Benham? Probably Deavere Smith means merely to open up the question of how these issues may or may not relate to each other, without connecting any of the dots for us. But the result, while thought-provoking, is somewhat theatrically flaccid; a show about such familiar and yet complex issues needs sharper definition.
Still, the sheer variety of the voices Deavere Smith draws upon here is impressive, and moment by moment the show holds the interest due to the intense, distinct flavors of these voices, which range surreally from Walt Whitman to George Stephanopoulos to Gloria Steinem to Bill Clinton himself. As Deavere Smith’s unique theatrical experiments have illustrated, history can be most revealing, not to mention most entertaining, when it’s liberated from books and newspaper columns and caught on the wing, in the stuttering, stammering sounds of real human speech.