Friday, March 30, 2018

Over My Head?: Despite Feeling Fresh, 'Smart People' Doesn't Achieve -- or Even Approach -- Brilliance --- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Smart People
a recent play
written by Lydia R. Diamond
directed by Hallie Gordon
Writers Theatre, Glencoe, IL
Thru June 10

As I waited in Writers Theatre's beautiful lobby for Smart People to begin, I joked on Facebook that it's always good to see plays about those different than you.

I meant this somewhat facetiously, and self-deprecatingly, as I like to believe I'm reasonably intelligent.

But the truth is, that unlike the four characters in Lydia Diamond's play--which ran Off-Broadway in 2016 with a star-studded cast but middling reviews--I never earned a master's degree, doctorate or MD.

Nor did I attend Harvard.

In addition to being far more academically and professionally accomplished than I have been, Valerie, Jackson, Ginny and Brian seem to be roughly half my age. The first two characters are African-American, the third Asian-American and the last a rather unlikable white guy.

None of which, in itself, makes the play unappealing. There is a hipness to Diamond's dialogue, and a sprightly structure as--for most of the 2-act play--only two characters at a time chat with each other through a series of brief scenes.

We learn that Valerie Johnston (engagingly played by Kayla Carter) is an actress, who bumps her head and winds up being seen in the emergency room by Jackson Moore (Julian Parker, first-rate as he was in last year's Pass Over at Steppenwolf).

The latter is aiming to become a surgeon, but his tendency to stick to his guns in ethical arguments with his money-minded superiors has set him back to doing ER rounds.

Ginny Yang (Deanna Myers), holds a doctorate in psychology and--being of mixed Chinese and Japanese descent--conducts studies on anxiety and depression among Asian-Americans. Myers performance is strong, but the role seems fairly stereotypical, as Dr. Yang is hard-nosed, hard-shelled, headstrong, bossy and likes to shop a lot.

And I'm not quite sure what to make of Brian White (Erik Hellman), a Harvard neuroscientist who conducts studies to see if the brain impulses of white people will prove his theory that they are biologically compelled to racism.

As we first get to meet Valerie and Jackson, Brian and Ginny, Brian and Jackson, Jackson and Ginny, etc., etc.--and a sparse but functional set by Collette Pollard with a video backdrop--there is a nice freshness to all the fast-paced interactions.

We come to understand that even though all the characters are clearly quite intelligent and--except for Valerie, who struggles to support herself through local stage roles--in "good jobs" that compensate them well, all are faced with work frustrations, self-esteem questions, romantic difficulties and all the things that pretty much everyone encounters.

Smart People takes place amid the first Presidential campaign by Barack Obama in 2008, and while race isn't always at the forefront of the multiple dialogues, it becomes particularly prevalent through the pretty pompous white "liberal" character of Brian, the aims of his academic study that almost no one (including unseen superiors, colleagues, etc) understands and his fledgling but kind of cold romantic relationship with Ginny.

But while the play moves pretty well and Diamond is a talented writer--I enjoyed her The Bluest Eye
years ago, also directed by Hallie Gordon--the episodic scenes never really congealed into anything I could much embrace.

And though I recognize that vile racism can manifest in many ways, including by those who like to fancy themselves rather open minded, I don't feel like Smart People much enlightened me.

It even seemed to traipse in unfortunate stereotypes, and at the very least suggested that unlikable people can come in any color.

Or level of intelligence. 

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