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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
As the age of Obama hasn't made us color blind, neither is the inclusion of one Jewish and two Hispanic men in the current crop of presidential hopefuls a sure-fire signal that we've become more generally open-minded. This should make Smart People more timely than ever. And so it does. If only it were as smart as it could be.
The New York production is stylishly staged and smoothly helmed by Kenny Leon and the actors, all with strong TV credentials, are good looking as well as smart. . Unfortunately , instead of creating a well-made play with very human characters as she did with Stick Fly , Diamond's characters come off mostly as very talkative issue-representatives. It's not that what they represent, isn't worth thinking about and what they say isn't often sharp and funny. It's just that it all comes off as too familiar and lacking in real depth, with Diamond's facility for snappy dialogue sabotaged by plot devices that too often smack of contrivance. The short scenes that jump back and forth between the multitude of opinions voiced and debated in scenes focusing on one character or two meeting up under various circumstances make this more a sketch comedy than a really incisive satire.
Having the characters pair off does make things more interesting: The play's two tenured Harvard professors — Brian White (Joshua Jackson's characterizing surname is a nice bit of borrowing from restoration comedies) and Asian-American Ginny Young — begin a fraught personal relationship after a committee meeting to assess retaining and recruiting minorities. Except for the sex, things aren't exactly smooth sailing for the younger African-Americans — Jackson (Mahershala Ali), a surgical intern who also works at a clini and Valerie (Tessa Thompson) a struggling actress with an MFA in theater studies.
Some scenes are satirically on the mark, like Valerie's deliciously funny but demeaning auditions and Ginny's very uncool displays of her shopping addiction. While the barrage of talk does reveal each character's insecurities and quirks.However, the sketch-after-sketch structure results in generally sketchy character development with a whiff of a playwright trying to have it all: A potent conversation about important social issues as well as an amusing smart set comedy of manners.
The play's first act uses the alternating sketch style to set up the the various points of interest and conflict es to be further explored. But even with the back wall enlivened by Zachary B. Borovay's colorful illustrative projections, all this exposition doesn't exactly put you at the edge of the seat.
The Harvard setting is not coincidental. The scientific study conducted by Neuroscientist Brian is based on an actual study done there. The disturbing theory for which Brian has found scientific proof is that prejudice against people of color is hard wired into the brains, even of liberals like him whose best friend is the African-American Jackson.
Solid as Brian's findings are, his work is not improving his standing at the university. Quite the contrary. Neither does it enhance his friendship with Jackson. In fact, in the play's best scene, a blow-up at a dinner in Brian's home that finally brings all four characters together, Brian tells Jackson is not a victim of white prejudice but of his own thin-skinned tendency to fly of the handle when criticized. Brian's inviting Valerie to meet Jackson whom she already knows adds to the ticking time bomb mood of that dinner (as well as another authorial contrivance).
While it's hard to care deeply about any of these top of the career opportunity heap people, the most interesting one is über ambitious Ann Son's Ginny. Unlike Brian, her study of self image and identity among Asian-American women does nothing to put her tenure at risk. As she pointedly remarks during that final dinner party, people like her are still "in the corner with the Latinos, and some Middle Easterners and the handful of Native Americans left" since when it comes to talk about race "it's just Black and White."
While there are enough sharp and funny moments to keep boredom at bay, Smart People utltimately disappoints because it could have been so much smarter.