Theater Review: Smart People Is Probably Better Read Than Seen

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Four Harvard graduates walk into a scene: Valerie, a young African-American actor; Jackson, an African-American surgical intern; Ginny, a Chinese-Japanese-American psychology professor; and Brian, a white neuropsychiatrist. If this sounds like a rabbi-priest-minister kind of joke, that’s part of the problem with Smart People, Lydia R. Diamond’s clever and amusing but thin new play at Second Stage. On the evidence of this unsatisfying production, directed by Kenny Leon, Diamond is more interested in addressing the complications of race as a kind of laboratory puzzle than in embodying characters that credibly exist beyond that issue. The result feels less like a play than a PowerPoint presentation.

In fact, Smart People seems to take place in a lecture hall: Riccardo Hernandez’s set consists mostly of a curved wooden wall with a large projection screen. This is most naturally Brian’s domain, where we quickly find him giving a talk to undergraduates about his research. Actually, we have to wait a bit to hear about the studies in which he claims to prove that white racism is hardwired at the cellular level; first we learn that, in him at least, obnoxiousness is. Diamond’s method of complicating her characters in this way feels a bit mechanical, in each case undermining central traits with their stereotypical opposites. Brian studies racism but is the walking embodiment of half-conscious white privilege — his last name is even White. Jackson is a Golden Boy; he is not only doing his surgical rotation at a major hospital but runs a clinic in a poor neighborhood, cooks delicious dinners for his dates, and is, according to a stage direction, “a beautiful specimen of athletic Black manliness.” But he’s such an oblivious hothead that it’s impossible to tell whether the roadblocks he faces are the result of racism or his own insufferability. Ginny, meanwhile, does research in depression among young Asian-American women, and counsels them sensitively, but is so broadly drawn as a hypercompetent, lacquered, and acquisitive automaton that she is barely endurable. Of the four characters — I almost said “subjects” — only Valerie seems to incorporate her contradictions naturally. Race is part of her identity, not her obsession. (We meet her rehearsing the role of Portia in a Boston production of Julius Caesar.) Tellingly, the only stereotype she embodies is one that arises from within the black community, not beyond it. Jackson, who finds her attractive, also sees her as “saddity” — a snob.

The problem with constructing characters in this way isn’t that their traits don’t seem real, it’s that they don’t seem organic. Diamond appears to have started with a list of true things and divvied them out to the four corners of her checkerboard. It can be amusing to watch the game play out, especially when the nonwhite characters make the same mistakes, based on prejudice, that the white character, and by extension all white people, are accused of making. Valerie, who cuts herself on a flat during a rehearsal, assumes that Jackson, who treats her in the emergency room, is an orderly, and Jackson assumes that Valerie, with that laceration on her face, has been beaten by a boyfriend. Everyone calls Ginny’s clients “girls” even though they’re women: “They’re Chinese,” she says, “they’re short.” On a macro level, Diamond even toys with the audience’s prejudicial expectations of a “black” play, as when Jackson tells Valerie that, despite his apparent disdain for high culture, he has in fact been to the theater:

JACKSON: I saw Lord Help the Child That’s Got His Mama at the Atrium last fall. And um, The Brotha’s Got a Song to Sang.
VALERIE
: Oh … well … 
JACKSON
:
 Yeah. See, this brother was a gangbanger and his mama kept prayin’ to set him straight, and he accidentally shot his sister, and when he was in prison he got saved and then he found out that it was really the neighborhood drug dealer that killed his sister ... and they all sang a song, went to church, and lived happily ever after.
VALERIE
: Which play was that?
JACKSON
: Both.

And then we learn that one of the four characters actually does have a crackhead in the family.

All of these permutations and involutions of the theme make Smart People the kind of play that’s fascinating to read and think about. It is not, however, very fascinating to watch. Nothing much is going on visually; Leon’s staging is cursory. The cast, mostly movie and television actors, looks terrific but leans too much to the extremes of their characters rather than to some unifying center. (Only Dear White People’s Tessa Thompson, as Valerie, convinces us that she’s a real person instead of a checklist.) But the bigger problem is that there is very little plot: the four characters meet in various groupings in brief, fragmentary scenes — many of which are monologues, with a listener awkwardly implied — and report the racial things happening to them. There is so little forward motion that the author has rightly seen fit to latch those scenes to historical events that help give the illusion of specific time passing: The action takes place in the two years leading up to Obama’s inauguration in 2009. Since the play has no climax except a ginned-up fizzle of a dinner-table argument with all four present, the swearing-in is commandeered to fill the void and provide a wallop of emotion.

In the sociological spirit of the play, I eavesdropped on some conversations among couples and groups leaving the theater, wondering if I might hear a difference between what white and black people were saying. (In the play, Ginny points out that Asian-Americans are often omitted from the dialogue: “It’s just black and white. So I’ll just sit here and let you all work that out.”) There was, in fact a difference. While I heard a few black women praising the play as “accurate” and “true,” what I heard from a few white couples was … nothing. They weren’t talking, or not about what they’d seen. And while I don’t happen to feel that “accurate” and “true” are the same thing in playwriting, the response I so unscientifically noticed may prove the point moot. The main thing I came away from Smart People feeling is that we need more black critics.

Smart People is at Second Stage through March 6.