By Tulis McCall
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 assemble here a 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 telling his supervisor to fuck off (seriously?). And Brian (Joshua Jackson) is gleefully telling his class that he 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 which to speak. 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. The subject of 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. They 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.
Few 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’e 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.
Smart People – By Lydia R. Diamond; directed by Kenny Leon
WITH: Mahershala Ali (Jackson), Joshua Jackson (Brian), Anne Son (Ginny) and Tessa Thompson (Valerie).
Sets by Riccardo Hernandez; costumes by Paul Tazewell; lighting by Jason Lyons; sound by Nevin Steinberg; projections by Zachary G. Borovay; music by Zane Mark; production stage manager, Cambra Overend; associate artistic director, Christopher Burney; production manager, Jeff Wild; general manager, Seth Shepsle. Presented by Second Stage Theater, Carole Rothman, artistic director; Casey Reitz, executive director. Through March 6 at Second Stage Theater, 305 West 43rd Street, Manhattan; 212-246-4422, 2st.com. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.