Long Wharf Theatre
Long Wharf Theatre is currently presenting “Smart People,” Lydia R. Diamond’s alternately entertaining and provocative play. The focus of “Smart People” is most definitely race and race relations, a subject that feels as timely as ever. Playwright Lydia R. Diamond has done an expert job of layering “Smart People” with a series of short scenes that feel almost like snapshots of different moments in the lives of the play’s four characters. Long Wharf Theatre is very fortunate to have director Desdemona Chiang at the helm of this production and she does a terrific job of both staging the show and eliciting superb performances from her quartet of actors. And, if “Smart People” doesn’t feel as racially incendiary as such recent Long Wharf Theatre productions as “Clybourne Park” and last season’s “Disgraced,” “Smart People” is still subversive, in its own way, and, thanks to the talents of everyone involved, the production goes by in a flash.
This is a good thing, actually, because one remains riveted to both the characters and the developing story in “Smart People.” It’s interesting that, as one enters the theatre, the curtain is up and one can immediately see Patrick Lynch’s set design, with the most prominent aspect being four large x-rays of human brains displayed above the stage. Considering that the play is called “Smart People,” it’s fitting to see these x-rays illuminated throughout the show. Also, one of the characters, Brian White (the excellent Peter O’Connor), is doing a study of human brain activity. But what’s most striking about the x-rays is how all four of the brains look so much alike.
In “Smart People,” though, the four characters display personalities and world views that, pointedly, seem so wildly different. It must be mentioned that the biggest asset in this production is how superlative the cast is. As Valerie Johnston, a struggling African American actress, Tiffany Nichole Greene gives a bright and embracing performance, and one can’t help rooting for her in the play. Her character is also quite funny, and she has, at times, a sharp tongue. In “Smart People” it is interesting to see how the characters keep crossing paths throughout the show (there is even a humorous reference made to the “six degrees of Kevin Bacon”). As it happens, Valerie becomes involved with Jackson Moore (played by the handsome and appealing Sullivan Jones), a doctor, also African American, who seems equally frustrated in his career.
It is important to mention the ethnicity of the characters because, as noted, race plays such a large role in “Smart People.” There is also the tightly wound psychotherapist Ginny Yang, who is portrayed by the expert and spirited Ka-Ling Cheung. Ginny Yang is Asian American and she forms a relationship with the aforementioned Brian White (Peter O’Connor), who is Caucasian. Not to give too much away, but these four people in the play don’t actually all appear in a scene together until late in the second act. By the time one gets to see this quartet of characters all in the same room, we’ve learned so much about each one of them that it’s fascinating to watch their personalities clash and bounce off of each other.
It’s interesting that Lydia R. Diamond decided to call her play “Smart People,” because, although everyone onstage is intelligent and college educated, when it comes to interpersonal relationships and interacting with each other, they really don’t seem to say or do the smartest things. Still, Diamond has created four remarkable characters in this show, all whom seem startlingly real. Long Wharf Theatre’s production of “Smart People” is quite illuminating and, although the play doesn’t always feel as racially-charged as it promises to be at the onset, it is still most definitely worth seeing.
“Smart People” continues performances at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT through April 9, 2017. For tickets, please visit www.longwharf.org or call the box office at 203-787-4282.
Photo: (L-R): Peter O’Connor, Sullivan Jones, Tiffany Nichole Greene, and Ka-Ling Cheung
Photo by T. Charles Erickson