Sparks flew across the stage of the Cort Theatre when Lydia R. Diamond's Stick Fly played there in 2011. By contrast, Diamond's latest effort, Smart People (now making its New York debut at Second Stage Theatre), is far less incendiary. And that's not necessarily a good thing. Diamond takes aim at several juicy topics: the origin of racism, the limitations of economic privilege, and the intersection of race and sexual desire. Any of these topics could spawn a hundred fascinating plays. Unfortunately, their synthesis here results in a big "so what?" With unfocused plot development and language that dances around its point, Smart People feels like a rough draft of a potentially greater play.
It takes place in Cambridge, Massachusetts, during the 2008 presidential election. Valerie (Tessa Thompson) is a black actress and recent Harvard MFA who canvases for Obama. To make extra money, she participates in visual stimuli tests conducted by Doctor Brian White (Joshua Jackson), a Harvard professor who has allegedly proved that racism is a genetic trait shared by all white people. Brian is sleeping with fellow professor Doctor Ginny Yang (Anne Son), a tenured psychologist who coaches her female Asian-American clients on how to be more assertive. She hunts for new study subjects at the Chinatown free clinic run by Doctor Jackson Moore (Mahershala Ali), an African-American graduate of Harvard med school who happens to be Brian's only friend. The four characters intersect in myriad ways over the course of the play before they are finally all in the same room for a super awkward dinner party. "It's like that f*cking Kevin Bacon game," Valerie correctly observes.
Diamond's contrivance is ultra-transparent. This wouldn't be a problem if it led to something. After 90 minutes of exposition we expect a truly spectacular main event, but all we get is a limp version of a drinking and fighting play (think Disgraced, but unlike Ayad Akhtar's explosive Broadway debut, which is also about the irresistibility of tribe, Smart People fizzles out just when the circumstances are most combustible). Instead of a knock-down-drag-out, the characters snipe at each other about privilege for a few minutes before everyone gives up and goes home. While this may be a realistic depiction of a typical Harvard dinner party, we wonder why we are watching. Which raises the question: Why was it necessary to line up so many dominoes if they're never going to be knocked down?
Director Kenny Leon (A Raisin in the Sun) pulls out all the stops to keep us engaged: sliding scenery (efficiently imagined by Riccardo Hernandez), giant projections (smartly curated by Zachary G. Borovay), and full-frontal male nudity (this is your chance, Dawson's Creek fans…house right). It's not enough to keep our minds from wandering away from the stage action, or more often, lack thereof.
Thankfully, the performers are able to make Diamond's text seem halfway plausible. Son enthusiastically digs into a character who is equally competent as a dominatrix in the department store (a series of scenes in which she argues with invisible sales clerks are both memorable and cringe-inducing) and a submissive in bed. Ali's Jackson is guarded and inscrutable. As Brian, Joshua Jackson has the crisp and sunny diction of a Philip Morris spokesman circa 1963. His initial flirtations with Ginny are a rapid-fire intellectual joust, the kind you might hear in an Aaron Sorkin drama.
When they're together, Jackson and Ali are particularly good at selling lines better suited for a New Yorker essay than a theater. At one point, they enter a locker room after a strenuous game of basketball, muscle tees drenched in sweat (excellent weathering by costume designer Paul Tazewell). They begin discussing Brian's work around race. "They did those studies right? The Clark Study – the one they used to push for integration," Ali slyly mentions before explaining the study, just so we all know what to Google after the show. It might not be the kind of locker room banter we expect, but it somehow works for these two overeducated dudes.
Ironically, Thompson's Valerie possesses the most unnatural speech patterns in the cast. "I'm an actress," she says, self-consciously cheating out to the audience. That jarring choice, taken with the conveniently named "Dr. White," suggests that Smart People may have been meant as a satire of the type of play in which sociological musings are hastily dressed up as drama. If that is the case, one suspects that some sharp edits could make Smart People a real riot.