Engaging from the get-go, Smart People commingles four juicy characters for a conversation on racism, professional life and personal connections that is at once witty and wistful. Kudos all around: first to playwright Lydia R. Diamond for writing dialog that takes your breath away; next to director Hallie Gordon for actualizing the full power of Diamond’s script; and last but not least to Writers Theatre for nurturing this production. Add a cast that sparkles, and you’ve got a clever, provocative hit that never talks down to its audience.
The intimate Gillian Theatre inside Writers Theatre provides a cozy nest for Smart People, which premiered in Boston in 2014. All four roles are meaty ones, and all the actors wear them well, but if there is a central character it is Brian White (listen for a very funny misunderstanding when he introduces himself), a Harvard neurobiologist who throws caution about getting tenure to the wind to promote his thesis that racism is hard-wired into Caucasian brains. Erik Hellman, an actor of expansive range who has been good in every part I’ve seen him play, has found the role of a lifetime as Brian. Brash but at the same time introverted into the life of the mind, Brian is both fearless and vulnerable. His witty repartee can turn on a dime to soulful truth telling: “Humans need to occupy themselves . . . in the small spaces between disappointment and despair.”
The other three Ivy League overachievers who interact with Brian and with one another face their own personal roadblocks. Classically trained actor Valerie Johnston finds her audition options limited by her race — so much for color blind casting — but also by her brains: she just can’t zip her lips when she disagrees with a director. Luckily for us, Kayla Carter knows how to take direction and nails Valerie’s every nuance in a smart, sexy performance.
As a surgical intern at Harvard Medical School, Jackson Moore has a similar problem zipping his lip when he disagrees with his superiors — you can almost hear him thinking, what makes them so superior when I know more? Julian Parker plays the role with aplomb.
Of the four characters, only one, Ginny Yang, a psychologist who has attained tenure at Harvard practically at puberty, manages to avoid conflict with her superiors. The catch is that Ginny avoids conflict essentially by avoiding contact, not only with her superiors but with practically everyone else in her life, finding solace only in shopping. Deanna Myers is convincing as Ginny, allowing peeks into Ginny’s inner life: “You’re the smartest person I know who isn’t me.”
The small black box theater comes alive with Collette Pollard’s set design and Deidre Searcy’s pertinent projections. Don’t overlook dramaturg Bobby Kennedy’s program notes, which provide handy background material including Harvard’s Project Implicit, where users can take variations of the implicit-association test that mirrors the research depicted in the play.
The playwright noted that “It is important that the play feel like an invitation to all of us to own the conversation. We can laugh and not feel uncomfortable because we know that we are all equally uncomfortable (and because it is funny, I can’t help it); it is why we go to the theatre — to laugh, and squirm, and be challenged and affirmed.” That’s an apt description of what Smart People achieves. Or as one of Diamond’s character says, “It’s not often that you meet someone who’s smart and funny and quick.” How true. When then happens, you need to be quick and see this play.
Through June 10, 2018
Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe (Metra riders can receive $5 as a thank you for going green)
Tickets $35 – $80 at Writers Theatre or (847) 242-6000
Photos: Michael Brosilow