Four attractive urban professionals cross paths, flirt, make love, wrestle with racial issues and talk their way in and out of romantic relationships without quite committing themselves. Sound familiar? Not the imaginative way playwright Lydia R. Diamond tells it in “Smart People,” a sexy, serious and very, very funny modern-day comedy of manners. Kenny Leon adroitly directs a super cast who play characters smart enough to carry on an intellectual argument on race in America — and human enough to look foolish when they lose the argument.
The setting is Cambridge, Mass., where opinionated Harvard intellectuals are thick on the ground. Making use of set pieces that glide on and off the stage at a pretty fast clip, designer Riccardo Hernandez goes with the flow of this episodic play without getting stuck in the ever-changing scene settings of lecture halls, hospitals, offices, and private places. (He could have used more help, though, from Zachary G. Borovay’s projections.)
Joshua Jackson (“The Affair”) is brashly endearing as Brian, a gifted neuro-scientist working on a study to prove that all white people are inherently racist. His research is sound, but things aren’t going so well for him at Harvard, where he’s losing his funding, his teaching assistants and possibly his job. In a tour de force of self-destruction, he gives a lecture in which he accuses his students, his dean and the institution itself of racism. “Tragic, really, your silencing of truth,” he rails. “Well, I say, grow a pair. The level of aggressive passivity in this room, in these vocations, in this country is shameful.”
Brian’s best (and possibly only) friend is Jackson, a surgical intern going through residency hell. As played by the commanding Mahershala Ali (“House of Cards”), Jackson is a babe magnet but wary of commitment. As a physician, he’s brilliant but touchy. (It galls him when the doctor to whom he’s interning calls him “hotheaded” and “volatile” — code words for “angry black man.”) He doesn’t need Brian’s statistics to tell him anything new about racism; as an African-American, he encounters it every day.
Leave it to loose-cannon Brian to fall for a difficult woman like Ginny (Anne Son, a comic treasure), a psychology professor of Chinese and Japanese descent studying racial identity among Asian American women at Harvard. “My findings,” she says, “debunk Western assumptions naming primary reasons for anxiety and depression in Asian-American women as familial.” In other words: It’s racist stereotyping, stupid.
Played with great comic relish by Son, Ginny’s sense of intellectual superiority and personal entitlement would daunt stronger men than Brian. A shopaholic, her department store manners (and meltdowns) are deliciously cutting. And while costumer Paul Tazewell has dressed all the players with a flawless sense of character, he’s made a real fashion plate of Ginny.
Although not in their academic league, a bubbly M.F.A. grad and hopeful actress of color named Valerie (played by the irresistible Tessa Thompson) is daily reminded that color-blind casting is a fraud. If only that gorgeous doctor who stitched her up at a local clinic would call her — even if he did insult her by assuming that the wound she got in a backstage accident was caused by a violent black boyfriend.
Both as individuals and when paired off as lovers and friends, these smart people express sharp views about racism as they know it — and display a wry sense of humor about dealing with it. Valerie and Jackson tussle over whose “black card” qualifications are more impressive: her campaigning for Obama, or his volunteering at a storefront clinic. Ginny explains to Brian that although she sleeps around, it’s because “I’m a slut — not because I’m Asian.”
But the show really hits its mark in the second act, after all the other characters have read Brian’s study and in one way or another challenge him on it. (“You think it’s hard studying black?” Valerie says. “Try being black.”) One striking “love” scene between Brian and Ginny powerfully illustrates the connections between racism and the power struggles between men and women. And at the end of the play, when the characters meet at a dinner party and lay all their race cards on the table, sparks really fly.
For all the humor in these charged exchanges between friends, Diamond (“Stick Fly”) has pushed the theater into playing a meaningful role in the current heated conversation on race that blew up at the all-white Oscars. And while she overindulges Brian and his stuffy lectures on that very subject, the playwright puts this incendiary topic in a realistic context, and addresses it in a refreshingly honest manner.