Smart People is a play explicitly about race that doesn’t seem to have anything interesting to say on the topic.
With a little bastardization, Einstein’s most famous equation, E=mc2, sums up the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company’s latest, Smart People, with elegant precision.
If “E” is “Every (almost) other DCPA Theater Company show I’ve ever seen,” and “m” is “magnificent., and “c” is “celebrated,” then E=mc2 is the mathematical expression of Smart People.
With the fewest of exceptions, literally every DCPA Theatre Company performance I’ve been privileged to attend over a vast number of years has been outstanding. The Denver Center in general, and its resident theater company in particular, exceeds expectations as a matter of course. Which explains why I was completely nonplussed and considerably disappointed walking out of the intermittently amusing, fatally underwhelming and, frankly, not as intelligent as it thinks by half, Smart People.
How did this happen? The characters are certainly smart enough. Valerie Johnston, MFA (Tatiana Williams) is a gifted actress with a quick mind and barbed tongue. Jackson Moore, MD (Jason Veasey) not only puts in grueling hours at the hospital where he is on staff but also operates a clinic focusing on lower income patients. Brian White, PhD (Timothy McCracken) is a Harvard neuroscientist whose career is devoted to abolishing racism by empirically proving its biological underpinnings. Ginny Yang, PhD (Esther Chen), also at Harvard, is a tenured psychologist who balances time between research and practice duties primarily focused on the marginalization of certain races, in particular Asian women.
The four actors clearly possess the acumen to bring their erudite characters to life. Playing an actress within the play, Williams is asked to jump from one character to the next throughout a series of auditions while simultaneously maintaining a cogent hold on her role as Valerie, and she not only succeeds at that but makes Valerie the most organically credible of Smart People’s leads. Veasey’s challenge is no less. As Jackson, a driven African American doctor with a chip or two on his shoulder, Veasey must bring passion and conviction to the part without crossing the line into a parody of the “angry black man,” and he manages that balancing act with seemingly little effort.
In on-the-nose name and in actual purpose, White is the “White guy” in Smart People. He is the embodiment of the entitled, white, male patriarchy that his entire professional life is devoted to vanquishing. Given White’s acerbic, aggressive demeanor, McCracken has a tough row to hoe presenting him as a sympathetic character, but he manages to do so. Chen faces nearly as difficult a challenge with Yang, who is given essentially one academic and two personal traits to define her character. Chen rises above this facile characterization with a strong, dedicated portrayal.
Director and DCPA Theatre Company Associate Artistic Director Nataki Garrett and her crew show their smarts through clarity of directing and top notch production values. The Ricketson Theatre’s stage is divided into two levels which allows all four actors to appear on the relatively small stage and interact fluidly both concurrently and consecutively. The entire back wall of the stage is a screen upon which myriad images are projected during the course of the play. At times those images directly elaborate on specific action onstage. At other times, especially when coupled with the overtly modern and high-minded electronica score, the imagery on display serves to amplify mood, tone and setting.
With all that perspicacity in evidence, let’s dumb things down for a second and ask, “What the fuck went wrong?” For me, the blame must fall squarely on the head of playwright Lydia R. Diamond. Smart People is a play explicitly about race that doesn’t seem to have anything interesting to say on the topic. It’s a comedy that earns only a handful of laughs. It’s a character study whose characters are sketches at best and ciphers at worst. Perhaps its deadliest flaw is that it presents as a series of only vaguely connected vignettes with no dramatic through line.
Smart People is the rarest of misses from the hit machine that is the DCPA Theatre Company.
On the Bill: Smart People. Denver Center for the Performing Arts, 1400 Curtis St., Denver. Through Nov. 19. Tickets: $30 and up. denvercenter.org.