Thursday, February 11, 2016

Smart People **

I really wanted to like Lydia Diamond’s play at Second Stage. It isn’t often that we get a chance to witness four attractive intellectuals with Harvard ties talking about the important issue of racism in America. It’s even more unusual when the discussion is punctuated by lots of humor and simulated sex. Nevertheless, I found the play somewhat unsatisfying. Diamond’s structure uses a lot of short, fragmentary scenes, often for one character addressing an unseen second person. Some of these scenes, e.g. Brian (Joshua Jackson), a white neuroscience professor criticizing his students; Valerie (Tessa Thompson), a black actress reading for an audition; Jackson (Mahershala Ali), a surgical resident arguing with his superior; Ginny (Anne Son), a shopaholic Asian-American psychologist browbeating a salesperson, are amusing, but the fragments do not fit together all that well. The whole is somehow less than the sum of its parts. The center of attention is the fallout from a research study by Brian demonstrating that whites are hard-wired to react negatively to blacks. Ginny points out that Asians, Native Americans and Hispanics are usually left on the sidelines in a discussion of race. It is unclear whether Jackson’s problems with authority are more rooted in racism or in his hot temper. I felt that the sex scenes and the gratuitous brief male frontal nudity were thrown in to grab the audience’s attention between didactic moments. The action begins in 2007 and ends with the inauguration of Obama in January 2009. While there is one scene about campaigning for Obama, the significance of his election did not seem related organically to the rest of the play. The stunningly attractive cast make their characters lively. Among the characters, I thought that Ginny was by far the most interesting and found myself wishing that the play had been focused on her. Ricardo Hernandez’s streamlined minimalist set was efficient if not visually interesting. The projections by Zachary G. Borovay seemed generic, contributing little to the production. Paul Tazewell’s costumes suit the characters well. The direction by Kenny Leon seemed a bit slack. I do give the playwright credit for writing a play that is likely to provoke lively discussion. Running time: one hour, 55 minutes including intermission.

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