February 17, 2016

"Smart People" Strains too Hard to Be Clever

Lydia Diamond's Stick Fly, which had a brief Broadway run back in 2011, was such a refreshing look at African-American life in contemporary America that I had to talk myself out of jumping on Amtrak and going up to Boston to see her next play Smart People when it debuted at Huntington Theatre Company in 2014.  So I leapt at the chance to see the new production of Smart People that opened at Second Stage Theatre last week.  

Now, all I can say is that I'm glad I saved the train fare. Smart People clearly wants to be a conversation-provoking look at the issue of race in this country and to probe the various ways in which prejudice and privilege manifest themselves. But the play, at least as presented in this production, may be too clever for its own good. 

Set in Cambridge, Mass. in the months leading up to Barack Obama's election in 2008, Smart People tracks the romantic and professional maneuverings of four people who would seem ideal candidates for a post-racial America. Jackson, who's black, is a Harvard-educated surgical resident. His best friend Brian is a white neuroscientist who is using brain imaging to study racism.

The equally smart women in their lives are Ginny, a part Chinese-part-Japanese genius (certified by a MacArthur grant) who is studying depression in immigrant women; and Valerie, a biracial actress who has a gift for the classics.

What happens to these smarties is just as schematic as their CVs. They bump into one another, break apart and then collide again, like the pieces in a three-dimensional kaleidoscope. Only the images they create are predictable.

Jackson feels that supervising doctors at the hospital are second guessing his decisions because he's black. Brian can see the racism in everyone but himself. Ginny is annoyed that Asians are too often excluded from the race dialog. And Valerie keeps getting offered stereotypical sista-from-the-hood roles.

The lines Diamond gives them are similarly pat and often pedantic, at moments grinding the play to a halt as the actors chug through them with the earnestness of debate team members trying to score points.  And there's little help to be had from director Kenny Leon.

Although Leon has done terrific work with plays by August Wilson and Lorraine Hansberry he fails to make one right move here. The staging is blocky instead of fluid and the sets by Riccardo Hernandez are anorexically spare, even for a designer who often favors minimal design. They lean so heavily on projections that I wondered if he had been working with an undernourished budget.

Leon has cast the show with attractive actors who have impressive acting school credentials but all four have devoted most of their careers to TV, which has allowed their stage chops to go flabby.

Both Mahershala Ali, perhaps best known as the political insider Remy Danton on Netflix's "House of Cards" and Joshua Jackson, who grew up on the old teen series "Dawson's Creek" and now plays the cuckolded husband on Showtime's "The Affair" (click here to read an interview with him) have natural stage charisma but besides flaunting their nicely chiseled bodies in one shirtless scene after another (and even one bottomless one) they don't know how to channel it into convincing characters. 

The women, Anne Son, who was a series regular on ABC's "My Generation," and Tessa Thompson, who can currently be seen as Michael B. Jordan's love interest in the "Rocky" sequel "Creed," are similarly pleasant to look at but have equal difficulty with making the people they play more than two-dimensional avatars for Diamond's political positions (click here to read an interview with her).

This all adds up to a big disappointment, especially since the reviews for the Boston production were great.  But that, directed by the Huntington's artistic director Peter DuBois, featured a different quartet of actors.  Maybe I should have paid the train fare after all.

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