Huntington’s ‘Smart People’ Is A Smart, Poignant Comedy (4.5 Stars)

‘Smart People’ – Written by Lydia R. Diamond; Directed by Peter DuBois; Scenic Design by Alexander Dodge; Costume Design by Junghyun. Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont St, Boston through July 6th.

‘Smart People’, the Huntington Theatre’s season ending production now playing at the Boston Center for the Arts, makes the assertion that no matter how much education, spiritual development, and interaction with people from tribes other than our own that we undergo, at a base level we’ve still got a basic need to feel better than those who are different from us. Set during the initial Obama presidential run (pre-racial America?) this entertaining premiere is a provocative and very funny look at race and prejudice of many stripes in this society.

Playwright Lydia R. Diamond creates a quartet of well-drawn characters that are never reduced to simple stereotypes and supplies them with terrific dialogue that is both witty and (at times) jarring. The story details the intersecting lives of the four Harvard connected players, beginning with the cleverly named Brian White, a Harvard neuropsychiatrist and professor. White is on the brink of “proving” that Caucasians are essentially genetically predisposed to be biased against of people of color, particularly African Americans. Why White has chosen this field of endeavor to explore is something that the play examines later, but his studies and outspoken championing of his own research is making his superiors (not to mention his own friends and colleagues) very uncomfortable. Scholarly examination aside, it also appears that he may be blindly unaware of his own prejudice, despite his continual claims that he’s beyond that.

His “girlfriend” is Ginny Yang, a Chinese-Japanese American psychology professor who studies identity issues among lower-class Asian-American women. She is academically brilliant, but like Brian, lacks any real empathy towards most of the human race when they’re in a non-clinical setting. Her lack of humanity is revealed in a number of telling statements about herself, most poignantly when she tells Brian that she’s “not very good at nurturing” despite her chosen profession. Jackson Moore is Brian’s African American (and only) friend, a Harvard Medical School intern doing a surgical rotation at one of the Boston teaching hospitals, who has a history of authority problems which manifest in an explosive temper. Jackson’s love interest is Valerie Johnston, a just-graduated student from the Harvard’s MFA program.
Like the characters from the TV series ‘Seinfeld’, these folks may be interesting and funny, but they’re not anybody you’d like to spend prolonged periods of time with. Diamond subtly conveys this by indicating that none of them seem to have any friends outside of this little circle. They are uniformly self-centered, although Jackson and Valerie display more human characteristics than the pure academics (Ginny and Brian) do. Although the heart of the play is about race – specifically the way whites think and behave towards blacks – many layers of prejudice are revealed. Valerie is a tall, beautiful and light-skinned woman who was raised upper middle-class and was the subject of scorn from her less fortunate (and darker skinned) cousins. Jackson rails against prejudice from his superiors while simultaneously solidifying the “angry black man” stereotype in the minds of his bosses (and the audience).

Ginny pushes back hard on the “submissive Asian woman” stereotype that her lectures and published works aim to debunk by brutalizing sales clerks who don’t bow to her manipulative demands. It’s another form of “better than” behavior that finds its roots in traditional prejudice. And in addition to his own not-so-subtle racism, Brian White is the epitome of a privileged “Harvard white guy” that can’t possibly have empathy for anyone not like him. Each of the characters (with the exception of Brian) feel victims of their identity, but don’t seem to grasp that their behavior is a mirror image of what they feel abused by.

This is not a heavy-handed, preachy work and is at times laugh-out-loud funny, but it still provides plenty of food for thought. Diamond allows the audience to form their own conclusions about race and the work encourages people to think about their own hidden prejudices, but there are times when I would have liked a little less ambiguity. One powerful scene towards the end in particular is immediately diffused with a rationalization on the part of one of characters, and the effect is to rob the audience of a real emotional connection. But the dialogue is witty and authentic throughout, and is one of the best written works I’ve seen this year. The acting is superb as well in this smart comedy. For more info, go to: