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An illuminating thing happened to Anna Deavere Smith four years ago as she sought interviews for House Arrest, her new documentary performance about the U.S. presidency at the Joseph Papp Public Theater: When Smith was allowed to fly on Air Force One with the press corps an uproar ensued because it was thought that she was a playwright, not a journalist. And yet, only two years before, many Tony voters had rejected her previous show, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, as a play, insisting that it was a work of journalism. They refused to accept that it could be both.

Whatever Smith's work is, it is very useful and very entertaining. House Arrest is the latest in her powerful series titled "On the Road: A Search for American Character," which also includes Twilight (1993) and Fires in the Mirror (1992). The new work isn't quite as spine-tingling as those earlier two, perhaps because they were both focused on more immediate and specific events happening over a few days: the L.A. and Crown Heights riots, respectively. Within those narrow frames, Smith was able to place individuals who shared a time but who wouldn't normally have occupied the same space except in violent confrontation. As a result, a valuable dialogue played out--both on stage and in the audience.

House Arrest succeeds in sparking debate, but since it has a much wider focus--the U.S. presidency, its character, and the character of some of the people who have occupied the White House--it occupies a canvas stretched across two centuries. (Five of the monologues are taken from historical 19th-century documents written by Thomas Jefferson, Mary Todd Lincoln's dressmaker, and others.) Inevitably, the focus is a bit diffuse, and the show clocks in at about two and a half hours.

Also perhaps inevitably for such an ambitious work, there are some important voices missing. For example, individuals talk about Monica Lewinsky and, in one section, about Norma McCorvy (the "Jane Roe" of Roe v. Wade), and it would be nice to hear their points of view. Actually, of the 40-plus figures included in House Arrest, all but a few are politicians, journalists, or historians. Still, it is fascinating to watch Smith move between these identities, swapping roles so quickly she often doesn't bother to wear shoes or socks except as an added effect.

She has assembled an impressive creative team that includes directorial consultant Jo Bonney, Tony-winning set designer Richard Hoover, and Bang on a Can composer Julia Wolfe, whose haunting arpeggios give the show a musical heartbeat. Smith doesn't peg every role; but, when she does it's like watching one of those actors in the Broadway musical The Lion King as they play a character and simultaneously manipulate the character's puppet (though I would argue that Smith is more adept at the performance part than many of Julie Taymor's troupers). When you think back on any particular scene from House Arrest, the picture in your mind is likely to be a combination of Smith and her interview subject. The performer doesn't disappear, but becomes part of the discourse taking place in the theater.

Still, Smith's work is less about accurate impersonations than it is about language. She doesn't try to be Rich Little; her goal is to allow a person's actual words (all monologues are said to be verbatim) to reveal aspects of his or her character. Often, this leads to a surprisingly sharp physical and vocal impression. In House Arrest, a portrayal of former Texas Governor Ann Richards offers, among other things, a poignant recollection of the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Smith does not offer a dead-on impression of Richards, whose own voice has a seductive honey coating that disguises a razor's edge; here, you just get the razor's edge. Yet, as I recall the performance, I can still see Ann Richards up there.

Perhaps the best portrait of the evening is of author Studs Terkel, a pioneer in creating art out of other people's words. His books The Good War and Working are, like Smith's "On the Road" shows, brilliantly edited interviews. In House Arrest, Terkel serves as a framing device: his ruminations about morality in the White House, human interaction in an age of technology, and the innocent integrity of a character like Huckleberry Finn are set off beautifully from the 40 or so other voices heard so clearly through Anna Deavere Smith.

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