Up to Her Old Tricks

Sara Krulwich/NYT Pictures

It was her solo shows that catapulted her to fame in the early 1990s. With Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, Stanford drama professor and playwright Anna Deavere Smith created a new kind of theater. She portrayed dozens of different characters in a series of monologues designed to illuminate all sides of a sociopolitical issue ("The Voices of Anna Deavere Smith," July/August). But for her most recent play, House Arrest, Smith hired a cast of 12 actors, and the show received tepid reviews.

Now she has returned to her successful formula. This spring, she performed House Arrest as a solo show -- taking on all the roles herself -- at New York's Joseph Papp Public Theater, where Fires premiered in 1992. In an interview with the New York Times, Smith downplayed her decision to return to the recipe that made her reputation: "How can it ever be a step back to be in front of people willing to come to you with an open ear?"

In fact, the problem with House Arrest may not be its format, but rather its overly ambitious scope. Watching the play -- a broad examination of the American presidency -- "you have the definite impression that Ms. Smith, confronted with the vastness of her subject, has lost control of her material," wrote Times theater critic Ben Brantley in March. "She emerges as a wanderer in an immense forest of facts and ideas who, somewhere along the way, lost her compass."

Meanwhile, Smith's earlier plays have taken on lives of their own. A film version of Twilight premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and will air on PBS this year. And Fires played in Chicago this spring -- with two actors performing Smith's roles.