Lots to Digest in “Smart People”
By Tom Holehan
I wouldn’t want to take a quiz after “Smart People”. Lydia R. Diamond’s issue-heavy play recalls a more intense college-level course at times. The play, currently on Long Wharf Theatre’s intimate Stage II is, indeed, smart. Perhaps too smart for its own good.
Set in and around Harvard University just before President Obama’s first election, the play introduces four racially diverse characters who, in plays like “Smart People”, are destined to meet. Brian (Peter O’Connor) is a white Harvard professor whose latest thesis is about the predisposition of white people to be racist. His best friend is Jackson (Sullivan Jones), an African-American hot-shot surgeon who feels he’s being held back by his white colleagues. Crossing paths with both men are Ginny (Ka-Ling Cheung), an Asian-American psychology professor who Brian attempts to date and Valerie (Tiffany Nichole Greene), a struggling African-American actress who is tired of being pegged for stereotypical stage roles. With racial divisions more heated than ever across the country, a play like “Smart People” is certainly timely.
But like Long Wharf’s recent world premiere, “Napoli, Brooklyn”, a play that was decidedly overstuffed with themes and issues, Ms. Diamond’s play also seems bent on squeezing in as much controversial material as she can reasonably fit within two acts of drama. Much of the dialogue is, no surprise, smart and clever here with several laugh-out-loud moments. But the play gets nearly tongue-tied as it grapples with questions of race, identity, bias, white privilege and gender stereotypes. In particular, the character of Brian is saddled with most of the pontificating and it doesn’t help that O’Connor garbles many of his lines and makes his character more abrasive and annoying than enlightening.
The other cast members fare better especially Greene who is often hilarious and touching as she attempts to conquer the New York theatre scene. Cheung is also quite fine as the over-achieving psychologist with issues of her own. Jones, as the handsome surgeon, has a series of delightful scenes with Greene that momentarily brings all the smart talk down to a more human level. It’s during those scenes that you wish the playwright had concentrated more on this one relationship.
Patrick Lynch’s evocative set smoothly transforms into various playing areas (helped by the actors) and features an overhead clothesline of enlarged brain scan photos. Steven Strawbridge’s lighting helps define each specific locale and Mary Readinger’s contemporary costuming, which includes more than you think it would for a small cast, is admirable. Director Desdemona Chiang keeps most of her actors on track with material that must have been simply exhausting to rehearse at times. It certainly was to watch.
“Smart People” continues at Long Wharf Stage II in New Haven through April 9. For further information call the theatre box office at: 203.787.4282 or visit: www.longwharf.org
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.