Smart People: Theater review by Adam Feldman
Lydia R. Diamond’s rough, drafty Smart People is mostly set during the 2008 political season, as the rise of Barack Obama casts a growing shadow on the ivory-tower world it depicts. Two of the play’s four characters teach at Harvard University: Brian (Joshua Jackson), a white neurologist researching what he believes to be a hard-wired human tendency toward racism, and Ginny (Anne Son), an Asian-American psychology professor. The other two are African-American: Jackson (Mahershala Ali), a surgical intern at Harvard Medical School, and Valerie (Tessa Thompson), who recently got an M.F.A. in acting. They’re young, intelligent, attractive and racked with identity issues: four hot buttons waiting to be pressed.
And press them Smart People does. In some ways, the characters conform to stereotypes they hate to be reduced to: Brian is blind to his but-I'm-one-of-the-good-ones privilege, Jackson is resentful and quick-tempered, Valerie is “saddity” and rootless, and Ginny is, as she describes the dominant culture’s view of Asian women, “sexually promiscuous and scholastically dexterous.” As their lives intertwine, albeit in ways that are not always convincing—small play, isn’t it?—their assumptions, flirtations and arguments sit on promising fault lines of conflict.
So why doesn’t the play shake us more than it does? Kenny Leon’s blah direction is partly to blame. Spacially vague, with homely sliding set pieces and large back-wall projections, Smart People looks as clunky as the acting sometimes makes it sound. Ali and Son do solid work, but Thompson is a blank, and Jackson delivers his lines in the cadences of a TV doctor on a 1960s serial.
The production’s flaws bring out weaknesses in the writing. The play’s many one-sided conversations—on the phone, in class—echo with tinny exposition, and its treatment of academic work is unconvincing. (The depiction of Brian’s research is especially muddy.) And although Diamond raises resonant questions, much of her spitballing hits right on the nose. Audiences may be smarter than the play seems to believe.
Second Stage Theatre (Off Broadway). By Lydia R. Diamond. Directed by Kenny Leon. With Joshua Jackson, Anne Son, Tessa Thompson, Mahershala Ali. Running time: 2hrs 15mins. One intermission.
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