Tuesday, March 28, 2017

CT Theater Review: Smart People -- Long Wharf

Peter O’Connor. Photo: T. Charles Erickson.
Smart People
By Lydia Diamond
Directed by Desdemona Chiang
Long Wharf Theatre
Through April 9

By Lauren Yarger
Smart People is a smart play about smart people and how relationships can be complicated despite your intelligence. Set against a backdrop (designed by Patrick Lynch) displaying X-rays of human skulls, questions of race and prejudice are at the forefront of this scathingly honest play by Lydia Diamond (Stick Fly).

Brian (Peter O’Connor) is worried about getting tenure at Harvard, where up until recently, he's been the darling bad boy of neuro-psychiatry, spouting theories about how racial responses are pre-programmed in the brain. When research proves that the university is prejudiced, however, he suddenly is on the outs and accused of being racist himself. He denies it. After all, doesn't he use African-Americans, like struggling actress Valerie (Tiffany Nichole Greene ), who cleans his office, as controls in his research?

"I’m just a White guy who wanted to know what it meant, in my brain, to be a white guy. I just wanted to compare what your crazy public-minister people are always screaming about with what’s happening in my head… and when I started to look, into the heads of people who look like me, even I was shocked… so then I wanted to know what people who looked like you saw… when they see the things that I see. And that we see two different worlds, is blowin’ my mind. And I’m wrong to want to explore that? It’s E=MC squared. It’s Darwin, and Galileo, and Newton, and Copernicus…. And what do I get? Shut down by someone like you? What the hell do black anthropologists and economists know about science? What do you know about science? Life is so hard for you why? You’re beautiful? You clean houses ‘cause you think it’s cute and it pisses off your mother? And you’re gonna criticize me for trying to make tangible that which your people are accused of making up?"

And besides, he is dating Asian American, Ginny (Ka-Ling Cheung), so how can he be prejudiced? Ginny is a psychologist who conducts research about Asian identity. She is career-driven and always busy with her research and seeing patients when she isn't feeding a shopping habit and giving store clerks a hard time. Cheung is amusing as she effortlessly counsels a suicidal patient on the phone while returning merchandise). Brian tries to get her to chill out a bit (so maybe he's a bit sexist as well as prejudiced....).

"Relax? Relax into you? Are you kidding me?, she asks. "It was preordained that I be the docile diminutive person in the room. But I worked my ass off, and the planets aligned, and now I have to show up and represent. Do you know how many people are lined up behind me to take that shit away. You’re supposed to know that, but you don’t because it’s … untenable."

Ginny begs a doctor, Jackson (Sullivan Jones) to read her research and improve care to Asians at the clinic he runs. That's where he gets to practice real medicine -- not at the hospital where, as an African-American, he deals with being under the instruction of a bunch of White doctors who want to make it difficult for him to succeed. He hooks up with Valerie after she visits the clinic, but he doesn't appear to be committed more than for easy sex. That compounds Valerie's own issues of self worth: she doesn't usually get the successful and handsome guys -- and Jones definitely fits the handsome role. She throws the relationship into jeopardy when she unwittingly admits that marrying a rich doctor would solve her starving-artist problems.

The sharply written dialogue contains a lot of humor -- and a lot of thoughts that make us uncomfortable. The script is timely and conversation-prompting.

Chaing does a good job of keeping the pace moving in this two-hour (with an intermission) presentation, but some techniques, like lights up and down on characters as they speak dialogue not connected to each other, can be tedious.

Smart People runs through April 9 at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Road, New Haven. Information and tickets: longwharf.org; 203-787-4282.

Additional credits:
Mary Readinger (costumes), Stephen Strawbridge (lights), Greg McGuire (sound).

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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