Thought-provoking, timely ‘Smart People’ tackles heady topics

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Deanna Myers (from left), Kayla Carter, Erik Hellman and Julian Parker in a scene from “Smart People” at Writers Theatre. | Michael Brosilow

If one were to measure the brain activity of audience members while watching “Smart People” – Lydia R. Diamond’s intelligent play about intellectuals talking about race, including a Harvard professor who measures the brain activity of white people responding to photos of blacks – it is likely that we could say, scientifically, that the work appeals more to the cerebral cortex region of our brain, which processes thought, than to the brain’s limbic system, which governs emotion.

Or we could just say the play can be called brainy, which is both its strength and its weakness.

The play follows four characters in Cambridge, Mass., – home to Harvard, of course – who inter-relate with each other, leading up to a semi-climactic dinner with all of them together.

‘SMART PEOPLE’ ★★★ When: Through June 10 Where: Writers Theater, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe Tickets: $35-$80 Info: writerstheatre.org Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission

There’s the neuroscientist Brian White (a smart and properly smug Erik Hellman) – “I’m the white guy,” he says at one point, the context being all-important. His research seeks to show that white racism has biological rather than social roots, which also means he tends to rather easily call his colleagues and students racist, which – surprise, surprise – has been putting a damper on his career.

Then there’s the more academically accepted psychologist Ginny Wang (masterfully played by Deanna Myers at the extreme end of self-assured), an American born to Japanese and Chinese parents who studies “Western assumptions naming primary reasons for anxiety and depression in Asian-American women as familial,” and who counsels Asian-American youth struggling with identity pressures. Her own perfectionism may be the cause of her severe shopping addiction, which is acknowledged but (alas?) not deeply analyzed.

Kayla Carter sympathetically and sensitively portrays Valerie Johnston, an African-American actress who pays her rent by cleaning houses and working as Brian’s research assistant. She also goes door-to-door in New Hampshire campaigning for Obama during the 2008 primaries, which gives us a period setting and a larger social context for racial politics. The play ends with Obama’s inauguration.

Kayla Carter and Erik Hellman in Lydia R. Diamond’s “Smart People” at Writers Theatre. | Michael Brosilow

Kayla Carter and Erik Hellman in Lydia R. Diamond’s “Smart People” at Writers Theatre. | Michael Brosilow

Finally, there’s Jackson Moore (Julian Parker), an African-American surgical resident who struggles to get along with his superiors at the hospital, and who tires himself out running a clinic for the uninsured. Parker, an intuitive and exceptional actor, brings an appealing quirkiness to the role along with both the necessary intelligence and vulnerable bravado.

The four characters have a series of two-person scenes, spurred on by necessary contrivances to bring them together. And many of these scenes sparkle individually. A date between Jackson and Valerie goes great until they argue over hot sauce (not hot sauce but… expectations). Brian and Ginny date, over-intellectualize everything, and end up with Ginny putting on a little performance as the prototypical submissive Asian woman, which Brian finds both disturbing and sexy. And one by one each tries to convince Brian that his supposedly brilliant line of research is obvious, over-simplified, and counter-productive.

If the quality of a play-going experience were determined solely by the quantity of sharp observations and witty lines, then “Smart People” would rank right up there.But too often, Diamond doesn’t provide sufficient narrative thrust to make the arguments move far enough away from the academic. And, above all, the play seems to revolve just too much around Brian, the least compelling and least likeable of them all.

A play about racism that seems most focused on the white guy? Someone could write a dissertation about that.

Steven Oxman is a Chicago-based freelance writer.

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