The four brainiacs of Lydia R. Diamond’s funny-serious “Smart People,” get a telling introduction. (AdamVisCom, DCPA)
3 1/2 stars
The introductions of its four characters at the start of “Smart People” are vivid, swift, instructive. Oh, yeah, they’re painfully amusing, too. Which is a bonus, since Lydia R. Diamond’s play about a quartet of Harvard smarty-pants plays deftly with so many of the issues the nation is manhandling on a daily basis: race, entitlement, history, gender, class, sex. Does that cover it? Probably not, but you get the gist.
Valerie Johnston (Tatiana Williams), a recent American Repertory Theater grad, is rehearsing the role of Portia. A black bohemian of sorts (her parents, it sounds like from a call for a pay-day loan, were able to swing both undergrad and acting school tuitions), she offers suggestions that are summarily rejected by a director we do not hear or see yet have a pretty sharp inkling of tone.
Appearing in a raised quadrant of the stage is Brian White (Tim McCracken). The Harvard neuro-psychiatrist, researcher and tenured professor calls out three students in an undergrad class he has no real fondness for teaching. Turns out they are the lucky ones. “With the exception of three outstanding students, you have all failed miserably,” he tells the others.
As Jackson Moore (Jason Veasey), an exhausted surgical intern, argues with an unseen supervisor about a decision he made, tenured psych professor Ginny Yang (Esther Chen) has just begun a presentation of a study she’s conducted of “350 third-generation Asian-American women.” Jackson’s frustration gets the best of him. He may have removed a patient’s toe but he uses a different digit to express his displeasure before taking off his bloody latex gloves and scrubs. Ginny’s trying to be respectful to the dope in the audience peppering her with questions about methodology.
Three characters are introduced in the act of defending themselves intellectually, professionally. One is the master of his lecture hall. To borrow a “Sesame Street” ditty: “One of these things is not like the other.” Or should we say “Other”?
Set in the period between 2007 through Barack Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, you might imagine that Diamond’s play would feel slightly dated. Instead of eliciting some nostalgic sigh, “Smart People” insists all those conversations about race, power, institutions “etc., etc.” weren’t — aren’t — no-brainers. Ginny, Valerie and Jackson live with that fact. Brian knows this. He might hazard, he knows it best. It’s an attitude that leads to a blow-up in the second, bruising act.
Using brain scans and other data, he’s been working to prove “irrefutably” that whites are racist — genetically. Not just white supremacists, but liberal folks with good intentions and adopted children of color. Harvard seems supportive of the work and the celebrity shine. Ginny and friends Jackson and, later, Valerie have doubts.
Jackson (Jason Veasey) and Valerie (Tatiana Williams) make nice in Lydia R. Diamond’s “Smart People” at the Denver Center. (AdamVisCom, DCPA)
But long before things begin to fray, Brian and Ginny meet as clever-sexy as two folks thrown together on a university diversity task force can. And after bumping into a piece of scenery and cutting her head, Valerie meets Jackson — a little more prickly — at the ER. She thinks he’s a nurse. He thinks she’s been beaten by her man. Their initial misreads about each other provide just one example of the play’s generous grasp and appreciation of the nuances of identities and this American life: Assumptions are an equal opportunity mess.
Still, there’s more than enough sexual energy in the air to have you rooting for the pairs. And plenty of complications to caution that cheering for “happily ever after” is premature.
Director Nataki Garrett told those gathered at an opening night celebration that she’d come to think of the foursome as “smart, nerdy people trying to get laid.” The characterization is more affectionate than glib. That exhausting, ham-fisted phrase “identity politics” has been used to quash attempts at describing what it means to live as black, Asian, Latino, Native American, heck, even white in this country at this moment. Garrett hears the multi-faceted nuance — and the pleasures, plenty of them — in Diamond’s play. Along with her winning cast, she ensures each character is vulnerable and infuriating, intelligent and boneheaded, wickedly amusing and absolutely real. “Smart People” is as funny as it is observant — and, yes, it smarts.
If you go
“Smart People.” Written by Lydia R. Diamond. Directed by Nataki Garrett. Featuring Esther Chen, Timothy McCraken, Jason Veasey and Tatiana Williams. Through Nov. 19 at the Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 14th and Curtis streets. denvercenter.org 303-893-4100.