Denver Center showing comedic cultural drama ‘Smart People’
Special to the Daily
If you go …
What: Comedic cultural drama “Smart People.”
Where: The Denver Center.
When: Through Nov. 19.
More information: Visit http://www.dcpa.org.
Playwright Lydia R. Diamond starts off her comedy about preternaturally smart people in two clever ways. First, she called it “Smart People,” lest there be any doubt going in that you’re going to be exposed to a bunch of intelligent bombast. Second, she kicks off the action introducing the four characters separately, revealing at the top of the show their individual superiority in a world of dimwits.
Now that the audience has a pretty good inclination to dislike each of them, Diamond starts to dig in and show their humanity, fragility, absurdities and all of the other things smart people have in common with everyone else. And yes, sometimes they’re not so smart after all.
This timely, if somewhat over-long play, is set during the 2008 election season, and at its core is an ongoing discussion about race in America. At the pinnacle of his career as a brilliant neuro-scientist is professor Brian White (a perfectly cast Timothy McCracken) as, yes, the token white male.
He’s deep in a study looking to reveal the built-in racial prejudices of white people, and he’s at war with the powers-that-be at Harvard where, according to him, the discomfort with the topic itself is compromising his work.
Meet the Cast
White’s best friend is Jackson, a young African-American doctor whose big mouth and professional ambitions put him at odds with his superiors as well. As played by Jason Veasey, Dr. Jackson Moore is a roiling pinball of emotion ranging from hyper-exasperation to grudging acceptance about the way things are. Veasey nails this character, displaying every bit of the frustration and anger felt by black men as he tries — and often fails — to work within the system.
The first minutes of the show belongs to Tatiana Williams, a young African-American actress with a freshly minted MFA auditioning for a role. As Valerie, Williams’ earnestness and desire to land acting jobs is offset by, yes, her smarts. She’s the one who’s questioning character motivations and directorial choices before she even gets the part and, like the other characters, she’s quite adept at shooting herself in the foot.
The other female character is an Asian-American research psychologist played by Esther Chen. Dr. Ginny Yang is another ball of pent-up frustration as she navigates the ninnies and nonsense all around her. Yang is the most enigmatic of the four, a minority with a strong belief that she’s got to be better than everyone else just to stay even, and fully equipped with a full suit of emotional armor. Chen plays her with great skill, moving her from perhaps the least sympathetic character to the one you might most want to offer a hug.
Any one of these characters could probably pull off a one-act play with their own story, so having them all on one stage is both treat and challenge. It’s not always easy to keep up with their elevated thoughts, which burst from their mouths in rapid-fire gushers of provocative hypotheses, poignant observations, prickly witticisms and a lot of cultural and political observations in the dawning age of soon-to-be President Barack Obama.
Director Nataki Garret has to be thrilled at the cast she was able to assemble for this show, and she does a very nice job with the script, moving the characters from their individual stories to their inevitable intertwining. The action is greatly aided by scenic and lighting design that keeps the play visually interesting, employing some high-tech stagecraft to lend interest to a script that’s based almost entirely on words.
“Smart People” is a very funny play that somehow doesn’t come off as a comedy. The issues faced by the characters are dead serious, and in the end, we of course learn that smart people want the same things we all do: love, sex, acceptance, security and understanding. Diamond’s own hypothesis might be that the gift of intelligence can be its own handicap, and she refuses to tie a bow on these relationships as the play ends. They may remain together, or they may not, but there’s little doubt they’ll continue to take the roads of most resistance, arguing and cracking jokes every step of the way.