‘Let Me Down Easy’ brings health-care stories to stage

There an old George Burns joke that Burns told when he was old. It goes like this:

Burns is doing some shows in Las Vegas and staying in a fancy hotel room. He hears a knock on his door. Outside is a blonde, leggy showgirl who says to him, “I’m here to offer you super sex.”

Burns replies, “I’ll take the soup.”

(It’s funnier if you say it out loud.)

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Anna Deavere Smith is several times removed from this joke. In her play “Let Me Down Easy,” she imitates Joel Siegel imitating George Burns imitating a blonde, leggy showgirl. But it gets a guaranteed laugh, whether from the 60+ crowd on a Saturday night or from high school students at a weekday matinee.

Siegel told this joke to Smith because he was dying. (He would succumb to cancer in 2007.) He is one of the more than 300 people Smith interviewed for the play.

For more than 30 years, Smith has been crafting documentary theater. She uses the exact words, physical gestures and vocal tics of her subjects as she embodies them on stage. She also has appeared in more conventional programs such as television series “West Wing” and “Nurse Jackie.”

“Let Me Down Easy” is about health care. It started in the ’90s when the Yale Medical School commissioned her to interview doctors and patients at the hospital. She did so, and then created a show which she performed at Yale.

Almost 10 years later, she returned to the subject, interviewing hundreds more people and whittling the material down to 20 subjects who tell their health-care story. They include Lance Armstrong, Ann Richards, champion bull rider Brent Williams, her own aunt and Joel Spiegel.

Smith performed “Let Me Down Easy” at the Suzanne Roberts Theater in Philadelphia.

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