Review by Tulis McCall
22 February 2016
In Smart People now at Second Stage Theatre, it is difficult to tell to whom author Lydia Diamond is referring. Us or them? By them I mean this cast of fine actors who are running a steeplechase of a path through this script. Diamond has assembled there perfect PC cast at all the iconic ages. 24 year old black actress frustrated by not getting auditions. 28 year old black surgical intern (Harvard). 36-42 year old white tenured professor (Harvard). Neuro-psychiatrist. And a 34-40 year old Japanese/Chinese American “Respected tenured professor of psychology at Harvard.” Such a setup practically squeaks.
We are initially introduced to the aforementioned as they reveal their predicaments (Often using that ill-chosen saw of repeating what the invisible person in the scene says so that we will understand the scene. Are we not smart???) Valerie (Tessa Thompson) is having a difficult time inserting her thoughts into a rehearsal scene from Julius Caesar. Ginny (Anne Son) is presenting a paper on the study of American Asian women and facing a battalion of interruptions. Jackson (Mahershala Ali) is telling his supervisor to fuck off (seriously?). And Brian (Joshua Jackson) is gleefully telling his class that his job is not to teach, because no one gets what he is saying. His job is to waste two hours once a week. In addition he dismisses three of his students for being the only ones to pass his most recent test. The smart ones please leave the class.
Paths soon cross. Ginny and Brian meet at a meeting: Committee For The Study of Minority Matriculation, Retention, and Recruitment – YIPES! Valerie and Jackson meet when she arrives at the ER to get a cut in her forehead sutured up. And PS – Brian and Jackson are basketball mates. The women overlap with the men in professional arenas: Ginny tries to get Jackson to read her materials on her work in an over-written scene. Valerie becomes Brian’s student assistant. Again over written.
While each scene is loaded with references to race – as if these people had nothing else about. And I am on the fence here because I have often said that if you want to see white people – just go to the theatre. We are everywhere on those stages. So to see race brought up is a welcome event. But when race dominates each scene, then each scene becomes a seminar. Race springs fully formed from their minds as if they had been waiting for the opportunity to speak on it.
The biggest fly in the ointment is that Brian has completed a study that “proves” that white people are predisposed to being racist. It is in our brains. The way they are wired. He has done the research and has the data. Now, this is pretty explosive stuff, but instead of focusing on this enormous factoid, Diamond distracts the onlooker. Ginny and Brian discuss teaching philosophies and stereotypes. Jackson and Valerie get into a hot muddle when she dissects his dinner condiments and he challenges her contribution to their people. There is a long drawn out scene in which Jackson and Brian discuss in detail the attributes of Brian’s study. This last one is mind boggling and intelligent conversation that would be suited to a proper debate forum. The final dinner scene makes the clearest attempt to bring us to a conclusion, but never achieves a peak.
None of the scenes have a “there” there. We hear some very smart people saying some very smart things. We see their lips moving, but we don’t hear a word they are saying. Diamond has given these fine actors little to work with in terms of depth. Kenny Leon’s direction does nothing to elevate or simplify the evening. These characters remain a conglomeration of facts and figures. Good people who mean well and have the credentials to prove it.
Who these people are, however, and why we should care is never discovered. Diamond goes wide with the facts of her story, and we smart people end up wishing she had gone deep. She is well intentioned, but wanders all over the many floors of this story like an earnest real estate agent. We glide through each room but are not, however, permitted entrance into the kitchen of these characters’ hearts where they serve up hot coffee in the morning and sip whiskey at night. Instead we see everything in its place and miss the lives lived there.
"Prickly, provocative notions about race, class, prejudice, identity and sexuality ricochet like balls scattering across a pool table in this brainy but overstuffed drama."
Charles Isherwood for New York Times
"First, a play that’s topical isn’t necessarily illumininating. Second, an actor who has given solid performances on screen isn’t a sure thing on stage. Too bad that’s the case with this heavy-handed play written by Lydia R. Diamond and directed by Kenny Leon and featuring Off-Broadway rookie Joshua Jackson... He is the biggest name on the marquee and the weakest link on stage."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"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."
Adam Feldman for Time Out New York
"There is much to ponder here and it is awfully dense, but if you're up for it, I do recommend 'Smart People.' Among its many insights, one stands out: When it comes to matters of race, there is no such thing as black and white."
Roma Torre for NY1
"Seldom do contemporary American plays tap so directly into the cultural conversation as it's happening. That pinpoint convergence energizes Kenny Leon's jazzy production and his sizzling four-person cast, making stimulating entertainment out of a play whose narrative momentum occasionally falls short of its thematic perspicacity."
David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter
"A sexy, serious and very, very funny modern-day comedy of manners."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...