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Smart People

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Tessa Thompson, Joshua Jackson, Mahershala Ali, and Anne Son
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Have you "got to be carefully taught," as Oscar Hammerstein II posited in South Pacific some 67 years ago? Or, as Avenue Q musicalmeisters Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez first mused in 2003, is it that "everyone's a little bit racist"? It often seems, in our sharper and more tolerant, if still imperfect, world that we've decided on one answer to that question. But what if, as Lydia R. Diamond ponders in her new play at Second Stage, Smart People, it really is the other way after all? How would we behave if suddenly everything we "knew" about the relationship between skin color and behavior was upended, and we were left with the task of trying to sort through it to find a new way of living?

It's a fascinating premise that Diamond (Stick Fly) explores thoroughly, if schematically, here, in a production that's been directed by Kenny Leon. She has chosen a sensible backdrop for it, too: the period before, during, and after the 2008 presidential election, when Barack Obama was challenging notions of what was possible in American electoral politics. As new truths about the people of the United States were being revealed, what was simmering just beneath the surface—and did it matter? Did it ever? As President Obama's second term comes to a close and the (increasingly bloody) race to replace him is underway, it's worth examining. Especially considering its core concern: What if racism were actually a genetic part of you?

That's the conclusion forwarded by Brian (Joshua Jackson), a white Harvard scientist and lecturer, who's positive the discovery will launch his career to new heights. But the path to that working out (or not) is dotted with other people whose views are not necessarily compatible. Jackson (Mahershala Ali) is an African-American doctor who must contend with what he perceives as institutional racism while he's trying to save lives. Valerie (Tessa Thompson), also African-American, must battle stereotypes and popular prejudice as her acting career kicks into ever-higher gear. Ginny (Anne Son) is a psychologist who works with young women, all of them, like her, Asian-American, and most of them poor, try to escape the circumstances and the cultural attitudes that relegate so many of them to failure.

If the setup seems overly inclined toward tension, little in Diamond's writing persuades you otherwise. She follows the four across two years, ending on the day of the Obama inauguration, through a series of mostly short scenes that exist primarily to highlight some new vision of the underlying potential conflicts. How does Brian (whose last name is, seriously, White) behave when he thinks he's alone in power? In what ways do their divergent upbringings prevent Jackson and Valerie from connecting? Do the classic, even stereotypical, power plays between their unshared heritages still inform a relationship Brian and Ginny may want to pursue? For that matter, when two traditionally disenfranchised ethnic groups fight, who wins? Who should win?

The play's impersonal, almost mechanical, construction makes it difficult to care most of the time. Much of the action involves Diamond checking boxes, moving pieces around her board, and repeating the process until only the obvious Brutal Four-Way Confrontation remains. (The final scene, a historical coda more than a dramatic one, feels particularly tacked on.) Riccardo Hernandez's set design, a disembodied college lecture hall (somewhat indifferently lighted by Jason Lyons), doesn't mitigate this, and doesn't discourage Leon from imbuing the proceedings with a too-studied educational atmosphere that doesn't encourage the generation of much real heat.

Many of the performances don't help, either. Only Ali, best known as the slick and forceful Chief of Staff Remy Dalton on the Netflix series House of Cards, finds a potent balance: He lets you see both the "angry black man" archetype Jackson embodies for others and the sensitive soul who's battling his own demons, and he demands you constantly rethink and revise your perception of him. Thompson is terrific most of the time (especially during an hilarious audition scene where she struggles to shed her intellectualism to play a tough-mouthed street girl), but doesn't convey a concrete sense of being trapped between incompatible expectations, which Valerie requires. Jackson (Dawson's Creek) and Son both come across as flat and lacking authority, and fall short of successfully weaving their characters into the work's overall texture.

Despite these problems, Smart People is never boring, and in it Diamond finds plenty of enlightenment and entertainment in the topics she tackles. Whether exploring the ways that items as commonplace as hot sauce and vinegar can define a culture, investigating where the demarcation lines were chalked between Obama and Hillary Clinton once upon a time (and thus the true significance of progress), or digging into the corrosive effects of both implicit and explicit bigotry (as well as bigotry for both "good" and "bad" reasons), Diamond views a sprawling selection of contentious issues as the multifaceted matters they are. By the end of the two-and-a-half-hour evening, both genders and all three races on display, as well as their myriad points of intersection, have had their unabashed, energetic say.

What Diamond can't work past, however, is the nagging impression that the stakes just aren't that high. As the title suggests, Brian, Jackson, Valerie, and Ginny are all brilliant and accomplished, and they're all on exactly the same (firm left) page politically—no matter how far Diamond takes things within this sphere, she can only ever go so far. The discussions may be provocative for the smart people of Smart People, but across the broader scheme of American discourse, they're still pretty superficial. On some level, that's the point, of course: One way or another, it is what's inside that counts. But given Diamond's willingness to poke, prod, and draw blood, there's no shaking a sense of disappointment that she wasn't willing to cut just a bit deeper.

Smart People
Through March 6
Second Stage's Tony Kiser Theatre, 305 West 43rd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Second Stage

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