Where: Writers Theatre, Gillian Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
When: through June 10
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Set between 2007 and 2009, Lydia R. Diamond’s “Smart People” arguably resonates in even more ways today than it did when it was first produced in 1914 during the hopeful Obama era. But the main takeaway for me from this smart play, which is enjoying a first-rate production directed by Hallie Gordon in Writers’ Gillian Theatre, is just how insidiously racism can permeate the lives of even the most intelligent, privileged Americans and make them unhappy and defensive.
The four characters, who live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and have connections to its elite institutions, all have chips on their shoulders that contribute to their inability to listen to each other. Valerie Johnston (Kayla Carter), a MFA-trained actor who makes ends meet by cleaning houses, often finds that casting directors consider her too black or not black enough for the roles for which she auditions. Ginny Yang (Deanna Myers), a Harvard University psychology professor who treats Asian-American women suffering from anxiety and depression, attributes their problems to stereotypes about this “model minority.” Jackson Moore (Julian Parker), a surgical intern at Harvard Medical School who also works at a healthcare clinic for the uninsured, is convinced his superiors are always second guessing him because he’s black. And Brian White (Erik Hellman), an untenured Harvard neuroscientist who identifies as “the white guy” and brings in lots of money for the university, clashes with the higher-ups over his theory that white racial bias is rooted in biology.
Diamond introduces us to these four by having them deliver overlapping monologues about their preoccupations while standing or sitting on different sections of Collette Pollard’s sleek, contemporary set with blocky furniture and a back wall for Deidre Searcy’s projections. This establishes their sense of isolation, but they don’t really become interesting until they start interacting and we can appreciate their complexity.
While some of the plotting seems contrived and sex predictably plays a big role, the stellar acting compensates. Carter is luminous, and the most likable of the four, as Valerie, who meets Jackson when he stitches up her head after she hits it on a theatrical flat. Although he irritates her by assuming a that man beat her (because she’s black, even though he is, too), they hook up pretty quickly—and break it off just as fast—over race-and-class-tinged misconceptions about each other.
Myer’s Ginny, who is half Chinese and half Japanese, counteracts stereotypes about Asian submissiveness with extreme aggression (watch how she walks), especially when she’s indulging her shopping addiction, a marked contrast to the way she interviews patients. She impatiently mistakes Valerie for Jackson’s nurse, tries to force him to let her use his clinic patients for her studies, and develops a halting relationship with Brian, at one point shaming him by acting out what she interprets as his sexual fantasy.
Hellman is letter-perfect as whip-smart but annoying Brian, an acerbic egotist with contempt for both his students and superiors who fail to recognize the brilliance of his “scientific” proof of his theory using measurements of brain activity in response to photographs. So adamant is he about his research that he doesn’t see the drawbacks and becomes his own worst enemy, something he doesn’t realize.
Brian meets Valerie when she volunteers to participate in his experiments and later becomes his research assistant, at which point she spars with him about his conclusions.
Some of his most heated arguments are with Jackson, whom he manages to offend both after a basketball workout and at the dinner that brings the four together for the first and only time.
Before that, virtually all of the scenes are between two characters at a time, though the finale mixes that up a little. In general, the women come off better than the men—and make friends—partly because Ginny softens as the evening progresses. This seems to be in response to becoming Brian’s girlfriend, something that is never fully explained. Also a mystery, or ironic, is why “the white guy” gets the lion’s share of attention in a play about race by a black woman.
In a way, though, the title “Smart People” may be ironic, too. They also are a bit stupid, not to mention self-destructive. Liking any of them—except Valerie—isn’t easy, but watching them and listening to their heady talk is fascinating.