Oleanna’s Kept Her Looks, but Not Her Attitude

Lance Armstrong talks about the body as a machine, one that must be kept in proper operating condition. Brent Williams, a rodeo rider, has a Westerner’s skepticism of big plans and big government but speaks admiringly of the care he received at a military hospital, where doctors are all government employees and work together, for a salary. Hazel Merritt, a poor woman in New Haven, Conn., tells of her daughter’s disastrous dialysis—the machine malfunctioned, blood spewed on Merritt, her daughter, and the room, but no medical staff was nearby to hear their cries for help. Finally, nurses shut down the machine, told Merritt to bring her daughter back another day and sent them home in a taxi, Merritt’s blood-soaked daughter wrapped in a sheet.

And Kirsta Kurtz-Burke, a doctor at Charity Hospital in New Orleans, talks of the dawning realization during Katrina that her poor patients were being ignored and forgotten.

“You just see the desperation of being poor in this country, and in some ways the distrust, I mean the deep down—this is not the first time this has happened to people,” she says. “I’m privileged, and this is the first time I’ve ever been totally abandoned by my government. But this wasn’t the first time for my patients or the nurses.”

The Kurtz-Burke monologue is devastating, but each one is profound and meaningful. (A few of the celebrities could have been excised; Eve Ensler and Lauren Hutton, for example, add little.) Together, they create a deeply thought-provoking look at life and death and a powerful and necessary reminder that the health care debate isn’t just about reimbursement rates and CBO scoring and Olympia Snowe but about real people, who sometimes get sick and who eventually die.

It’s the best theatrical experience I’ve had this season.

 

MEANWHILE, DOWN AT the Public Theater, artistic director Oskar Eustis is busy trying to convince the world that his current (and excellent) cash cow, the Broadway transfer of 1968’s “American Tribal Love-Rock Musical,” Hair, is actually about modern gay-rights protesters. (It’s not.) But on Monday night, as the Hair cast returned from Washington and a gig at the National Equality March, Lemon Andersen’s entirely up-to-date one-man memoir, County of Kings—a production not of the Public but of the Culture Project, plus high-profile backers including Spike Lee—opened in the Public’s Newman Theater.

County of Kings begins with Mr. Andersen onstage at the Tony Awards; Russell Simmons’s Def Poetry Jam, in which he performed, has won for special theatrical event. (“When they say this is the Great White Way,” he says, “man they sure ain’t playing.”) It flashes back from there: He grew up in a Brooklyn housing project with a loving but heroin-addicted mother and a loving but heroin-addicted and car-stealing stepdad. Mom died of AIDS; Mr. Andersen dealt drugs and did two stints in prison. Behind bars a second time, he discovered books and words. And, when released, he stumbled upon an open-mike night at the El Puente community center in Williamsburg. Words—poetry—saved his life.

The play suffers from some of the standard pitfalls of biographical solo shows. (There’s a bit too much of “And then I remember my neighbor, Mrs. Judy,” followed by a stylized portrayal of crabby Mrs. Judy.) But that’s a small matter. The thrill Mr. Andersen gets from language, from massaging it, finessing it, delivering it, is palpable and delightful. His script is impressive, his delivery better. And Elise Thoron’s direction (she’s also listed as a “developer” of the show), combined with Jane Cox and Lily Fossner’s lighting and Robert Kaplowitz’s sound design, give impressive texture and dynamism to what could otherwise be one guy standing onstage talking.

Most important, County of Kings is unmistakably a piece for today. And it has brought an audience of actual New Yorkers—my fellow theatergoers were much younger, and far more diverse, than usual in New York, especially at a Sunday matinee—to the theater. Their exuberance at the show’s end was cathartic—and infectious.