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THEATER REVIEW Smart People
by Catey Sullivan
2018-04-04

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At: Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe.

Tickets: 847-242-6000; WritersTheatre.org; $35-$80. Runs through: June 10

Writers Theatre's production of Smart People is sleek, stylish and zinging with witty repartee. It is also more of an intellectual exercise than a dramatic one. As the titular brainy folks engage in razor-sharp banter, playwright Lydia R. Diamond makes the audience privy to the kind of performative cocktail conversation deployed by people out to impress more than connect. What's said is often fascinating, but it's impressive for its brains rather than its heart.

Director Hallie Gordon's top-tier cast is on its A game from start to finish. But as the paths of the four characters intersect, Smart People becomes more than a little contrived. It's as if the players were game pieces, and Diamond a strategist carefully positioning them to maximize their eloquence.

Smart People unfolds as a series of conversations, primarily about race but occasionally branching into sex. The players include Brian White ( Erik Hellman ), a white Harvard neuroscientist whose research proves that racism is ingrained in all white people—inherent more than learned. Ginny Yang ( Deanna Myers ) is also a Harvard scientist. She's of Japanese-Chinese descent; her research is aimed at debunking the belief that the root cause for anxiety in Asian American women is "familial."

The quartet also includes Jackson Moore ( Julian Parker ), a African American doctor serving his residency at Harvard, and Valerie Johnston ( Kayla Carter ), a young African-American actor whose career includes playing Shakespearean leads and and auditioning for groaningly awful television shows.

The lines that connect the characters range from probable to highly unlikely except in a play that requires certain interactions for the plot to hold. Valerie meets Jackson in the ER after walking into a piece of scenery and then gets a job assisting Brian, who plays basketball with Jackson and starts dating Ginny who comes to Jackson's clinic in search of patients she can study for research purposes. They all end up having dinner together and discussing—among other thing—how life is like the game Seven Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

The plot primarily serves to provide a sounding board for each character's take on race and racism. Diamond's dialogue comes in swift, dense bursts which the cast delivers with finesse and verve.

Carter exudes charisma and charm as an actress struggling to please those who might employ her, even as she's fielding their micro-aggressions from those same people. Myers' clipped speech and graceful, confident physicality make Dr. Yang gleam with self-assured authority. This is a woman who knows exactly where she is going and how she will get there. She does not suffer fools, gladly or otherwise.

Hellman's Dr. White has both a boyishness and Everyman quality. Hellman gradually ( and sometimes not-so ) reveals that although Dr. White has spent his career studying racism in Caucasians, he isn't exempt from the very traits he abhors in his research subjects. Dr. Moore is arguably the most low-key of the four, but in Parker's hands, he's also the most memorable. Between Parker's work here and earlier this year in Steppenwolf's galvanizing Pass Over, it's clear that he's an extraordinary talent. When he's on stage, your eyes are on him.

In the end, though, Smart People doesn't linger long. The piece is largely forgettable, even if the actors are not.


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