by Samuel L. Leiter
In 2008, Barack Obama ran for the presidency on a promise of hope and change, a promise whose results continue to be hotly debated. One facet of that promise resided in the contentious state of race relations in the country when he took office, a subject taken up falteringly in Lydia R. Diamond’s Smart People, at the Second Stage. Diamond’s (Stick Fly) discussion dramedy plunks us down in Cambridge, Massachusetts, between 2007 and 2009, when widespread skepticism turned to aspirational idealism as Obama became the nation’s first black president. Looking back on that time from the perspective of 2016 suggests that, when it comes to race, hope may still linger but change trails way behind.
Diamond’s schematic, only sporadically effective play, slickly staged by Kenny Leon, concerns four characters, each highly educated and extremely articulate (a word mentioned half a dozen times); they also eat, drink, and sleep racial issues. The playwright uses them more as glib (and sometimes funny) mouthpieces for different viewpoints than as three-dimensional characters.
Valerie Johnston (Tessa Thompson, Creed) is an African-American actress with a recent MFA from Harvard’s American Repertory Company, who earns money while seeking acting jobs by cleaning houses. Another African American, Jackson Moore (Mahershala Ali, House of Cards), is a quarrelsome, multitasking surgical intern, who also runs a Chinatown clinic for poor people, but who claims his white superiors don’t respect him. He and Valerie begin a relationship fraught with intra-racial tensions.
Brian White (Joshua Jackson, The Affair), whose name mirrors his race, is a high-strung, tenured, Harvard professor of neuropsychiatry. Brian gets involved with Ginny Yang (Anne Son), who is of Chinese-Japanese descent; she’s a brilliant, sharp-elbowed professor of psychology with a clotheshorse jones. Both Brian and Ginny are involved in race-related research, hers being focused on race and identity among Asian-American women; his is much more provocative, since—despite his own emphatic liberalism—it seeks to prove that whites are predisposed toward bias against blacks.
The actors, all of them TV and film performers making their New York stage debuts, are hot enough to keep us watching regardless of the hollowness of their characters. The subject matter may be serious but there’s always time for sex scenes with flashes of thonged buttocks, or locker scenes with ripped male torsos and noteworthy extremities. They even dress as if they read T: The New York Times Style Magazine (Paul Tazewell did the costumes). If this be Harvard, Yale has some catching up to do.
Over the course of an overlong two hours and ten minutes, romantic couplings provide the sluggishly plotted ballast for conversations about race, mainly black and white. At one point, Ginny, not to be overlooked, complains about being placed “in the corner with the Latinos, and some Middle Easterners, and the handful of Native Americans left.” The complications seem contrived and the incidents leading to lovers’ quarrels artificial. Diamond’s structure is episodic, some scenes seeming more like solo set pieces than organic parts of the whole; these include bits showing Valerie auditioning, Ginny displaying her shopper’s defiance, or Brian expressing disdain toward his students. The most integrated scene is the penultimate one, where, at a dinner party, all four characters get together for the first time. The ensuing fireworks may not seem credible but at least they stir some juices.
Smart People moves along on a blandly neutral set (by Riccardo Hernandez) that at first replicates a large lecture hall platform; the many scenes morph from one to the other as furniture units swiftly slide on and off, accompanied by projections (by Zachary G. Borovay) and multiple lighting changes (by Jason Lyons). The production is smooth, the actors fine, the ideas worth a listen, and, as the title declares, the characters smart. The play itself, though, barely passes.
Smart People. Through March 6 at Second Stage Theatre/Tony Kiser Theatre (305 West Forty-Third Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues). www.2st.com
*Photos by Matthew Murphy