BWW Review: SMART PEOPLE in New Haven
Lydia R. Diamond's play, Smart People, is about a subject that makes everyone uncomfortable - racism. But it's a topic that won't go away, and the recent change in the White House proves that not only is racism still an issue, but sexism as well.
The play takes place in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the year that Barack Obama was running for president. Beaming over the flexible set are four huge X-rays of different brains. The play consists of four characters who all happen to be, well, very brainy. Brian (Peter O'Connor) is a professor of neuroscience who is a sure shot at becoming tenured, but he's also arrogant and insults students, faculty, and superiors at Harvard. He has a superior complex and is convinced that he has empirical proof that Caucasian people are physiologically racist. Guess what? They're offended. (Although he is "white," he is inexplicably immune from this condition.) In fact, he plays basketball with Jackson (SulliVan Jones), a highly-skilled African-American resident with Harvard Medical School who works long days at the hospital and in his spare time helps run a clinic for the uninsured. And Peter is trying to bonk Ginny (Ka-Ling Cheung), a Chinese-Japanese tenured psychology professor who counsels other Asian women to be assertive rather than passive while trying to get in touch with their feelings. She, too, is perfect, or so she thinks, but she sure knows how to have a confrontation with every salesperson she encounters while shopping for clothes and shoes. Finally, there is Valerie (Tiffany Nichole Greene), an extremely gifted African-American actress with two Master's degrees, and a very hard time being cast in prestigious, respected roles because casting directors see her as a lowly servant. Valerie comes from a comfortable background, yet she is willing to do menial work to achieve her goal - "rent."
Although the first scene is choppy and confusing, with each character isolated, their individual stories come together as they learn to let go of expectations and elitism and to face their own prejudices in unexpected ways.
The ensemble was superb, with each actor thoroughly convincing in his role. O'Connor gives just enough humanity to Brian to avoid making him into a total jerk. Cheung changes credibly from a rigid demeanor of all iron and steel into a woman who is strong yet admits her own vulnerabilities. Greene is likeable from the get-go, even when her character is flippant. Jones has incredible stage presence and he and Greene have fantastic chemistry together.
Desdemona Chiang's direction was flawless and fast paced, keeping the audience on its toes through clever dialogue that makes point after point about racism. Patrick Lynch's near-minimalist set was striking and worked well in the wide but shallow space of Long Wharf's Stage II.
Graphics Director Claire Zobhg amazes us yet again with her design for Smart People. The card and program cover have a combined image of four overlapping photos of the actors, each one with half a face showing, precisely conveying the way they see themselves and the way they see the rest of world. The design actually enhances the playwright's work in the beginning scenes that seem disconnected. The image is set against a brick and ivy background to reflect the college town where they live and work. It's totally brilliant.
The play is timely and, sadly, probably timeless (but not for the reasons that Peter insists). As long as people spew hate, there will be racism, sexism, and ageism. But things are better than they were 60 years ago. And maybe others should do what I do when I have to identify my race or my children's race on applications. I check off "Other" and specify human because that's what we are.
Smart People runs through April 9 at the Long Wharf Theatre Stage II. 22 Sargent Drive, New Haven. Tickets are $34.50 to $89.50. Call 203-787-4282 or visit longwharf.org.