Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Yes, Smart People is sexy, but is it really smart enough?

Eunice Wong and Roderick Hill hook up for some hot identity politics.  Photos: T. Charles Erickson.

All good plays cast long shadows, so perhaps it's unfair to feel disappointed with Lydia Diamond's Smart People (at the Huntington through July 6) which is indeed smart, and often entertaining, but never quite emerges from the penumbra of Stick Fly, the playwright's hit of four years ago.

And the reason is clear: in Stick Fly, Diamond borrowed the sturdy structure of the "well-made" play, and kept her designated factotum (she inserts herself quite openly into every play she writes) confined to the dramatic sidelines.  But in Smart People, she pushes her witty mouthpiece front and center (even though she doesn't have all that much to do), and attempts a complicated, multi-focused dramatic arc even though she isn't all that good at structure.

Sigh. So we're left with a witty (but meandering) meditation on race and racism among the self-described smart set - which is diverting, in the way a lively cocktail party is; it just isn't a play. Which is too bad, because it could be a play so very easily - as Stick Fly proved, once she has an arc, Diamond is fluent and compelling line-by-line. But without a game plan, she tends to polish scenes to a high gloss, then set them against each other like puzzle pieces that don't quite fit. Which means any larger statement remains frustratingly out of focus.

Still, perhaps these days we should be happy with small successes, with correspondingly small stakes. And even if Smart People is a muddle when it comes to race, it often scores as a comedy of manners, for Diamond comes through (again) with a clever little sketch of an American class - this time, the academic class, which needless to say, is the milieu she swims in every day.

Thus even though the playwright's putative premise is the discovery that racism is hard-wired into our skulls (the script was inspired by research at Harvard), what actually holds our attention are the sculpted details of her characters' manipulative social behaviors. Indeed, the racist patterns Diamond anatomizes in sketch after sketch feel almost over-familiar - pop culture has already had its way with them. Yes, we get the obvious point that these episodes are abundant proof of the thesis that Diamond's researchers are inching toward - still, we've seen better on cable.

In contrast, Diamond's Harvard Club vignettes glitter with secret, sweet amusement.  The narcissism disguised as altruism, the conversations built of dueling correction, the etiquette that's basically an endless chess-match of competitive self-awareness - all these mores and more are etched with a scalpel in Smart People.

But the sharpest idea in Diamond's conceptual quiver ties the long climb up the academic ladder to the clever exploitation of racial profiling. Her Asian academic superstar, "Ginny Yang" (Eunice Wong), has a name that sounds like a Bond girl's, a personality cleft between geisha and bitch, and an M.O. that turns every social encounter into a permutation of the concubine dynamic. Thus while Professor Yang tears up over Asian women who have been victimized by submissive stereotypes, she also demeans the staff in every establishment she enters; and most intriguingly of all, she insists her victory lap round the tenure track depended on her ability to decry the geisha stereotype while subtly enacting it with her own professors. Hence Ginny privately submits to what she publicly resists (and then takes her humiliation out on the help); like so many "smart" people, gaming the system is what she does best.

The cast of Smart People interacts with their respective racial profiles.

And Ginny's certainly the smartest thing in the play - we long to spend more time with her.  So we can only imagine how dazzling Smart People might have been if Diamond had cast as cold an eye on her African-American strivers! But when dealing with them she offers nothing nearly as probing as the great scene in which Ginny weeps over a series of online shopping menus which offer her no actual person to abuse (and thus no way to validate her superior status). Indeed, Diamond seems to unconsciously withhold from her black characters a truly complicated internal landscape; so benighted as we are, we don't read them so much as "black" as blank; they don't even have their own voice (instead, they time-share Aaron Sorkin's).

And then there's the way Diamond fumbles her treatment of that disturbing Harvard research - as well as her portrait of its leader (here "Brian White," believe it or not). The playwright's "smart people" are all agog that innate cognitive structures (which as tribal mammals we almost certainly have) might yield outcomes like racial bias - to which I can only say, really? Now maybe I'm not that smart, but somehow I'm less surprised. Worse, Diamond only cursorily sketches her protagonist's decline into scientific OCD as he's met with blowback from an uneasy Harvard faculty. Oh, she makes a stab at a few half-hearted point-counterpoint scenes, but let's just say they're far from Shavian. And instead of developing her hero's descent dramatically, she just tags Ibsen's Enemy of the People, as if to whisper on the down-low, "This part of the play that I'm not writing?  Check out Ibsen - it's in there!"

Of course it's hard to grapple with a dialectic when you're simultaneously trying to write a date movie. Which brings me to my final point: Diamond doesn't even tie her characters together in the way her material demands: for them, the personal and the political seem entwined with the sexual, but never more than superficially brush the professional (which is where they live).  It seems obvious, for instance, that Ginny, once she is Brian's bedmate, should end up as one of the faculty asked to evaluate his research; but such a taut little twist is never even suggested - one somehow gets the impression it might have been too dramatic.

Oh, well. At least the Huntington has once again fielded an impressive cast - McKinley Belcher III, Miranda Craigwell, Roderick Hill, and Eunice Wong are all fluent in Sorkin, and all are just about pitch-perfect under Peter DuBois' detailed direction. Although to be honest, I found Craigwell and Wong slightly more compelling than the men; Wong at first seemed stiff, until we learned to read that as evidence of her constant calculations; meanwhile Craigwell was just endlessly charming; after watching her suffer through Mamet's Race last year, it was good to see her land a real break.

And frankly, given that we're facing Guess Who's Coming to Dinner at the Huntington this fall, Smart People may look clever indeed in the rear-view. Still, I wince to think of all the plays this theatre's oh-so-racially-sensitive audience has been missing. Why isn't Jackie Sibblies Drury, surely our most exciting new dramatist, on its main stage, for instance?  Why was it somehow decided that We Are Proud to Present a Presentation, etc., arguably the most challenging play of the year, would wind up at Company One (where it - well, we won't go there; but let's just say I've spent much of the spring explaining why We Are Proud to Present is indeed a great play).  I certainly have no argument with this theatre's commitment to themes of race and racism - but the real question is, does it think that its audience is composed of "smart people" - or not?  That's what I wonder.


  1. I'd be interested in hearing your opinions on the Company One We Are Proud to Present a Presentation in more detail, if you're willing.

  2. Sigh. I've learned the hard way not to discuss the relative crudeness of Company One productions. My point here is only a variant of my usual one - that our major theaters dodge the challenges they should be taking and leave them to the fringe. Company One seems to have emerged as a kind of "go-to" fringe factotum for the Huntington (although sometimes their nod goes to SpeakEasy) when it comes to edgy new work. But given that "We Are Proud to Present" is to a large degree a satire of a company much like Company One . . . well, let's just say that it's the rare self-satire that draws real blood. Of course for the meta-minded, the production DID sometimes feel like a meta-iteration of the playwright's concerns about the clumsiness of politically-correct theatre. So there's that.

  3. Hm. Having seen the show without any background I took it as a given that its goals were predominantly metatheatrical. The fact that it was supposed to be satire didn't come across to me at all, which I suppose is indicative of the problem. I should get my hands on a copy of that script.

  4. Well, sure, meta-theatrical - but not in regards to the artists who are putting it on! And yes, a lot of it is satire. Basically of Company One and its ilk. Hence the irony of a production from Company One.

  5. I disagree. I think this is a very smart, probing play. You didn't mention what I think the main point of the play is, which is that we are all trapped inside our self-definition of race and identity. They've become a tangle of inconsistencies, contradictions, and imagined and legitimately felt slights.

    Identity, as one of the characters said, is a rabbit hole. There's nothing anyone can say in the play where they don't set off a firestorm over race or ethnicity. No one can tell any longer whether what they think is the result of society stereotyping them or their being paranoid.

    But I also agree with you about the discussion of whether racism is hardwired. I found this a distraction and not nearly as radical an idea as the characters in the play seem to think it is. It's intellectually underbaked.

    You're being somewhat inconsistent here, too. Both Luck of the Irish and Social Creatures were not as well structured plays as this, but you preferred them to Smart People. I also found Social Creatures an intellectual mess.

    Finally, this is a very, very funny play. That alone is a major achievement.

    Lawrence Goodman

  6. You're entitled to your opinion, of course, Lawrence. And I certainly wouldn't disagree with your claim that these characters are "a tangle of inconsistencies, etc." I also said the show was funny (if in a somewhat derivative way).

    But you know me - I stand by my analysis. And I think you're slightly misremembering my praise of "Luck of the Irish" and "Social Creatures". I didn't praise the structure of either (in fact I pointed out several structural flaws in "Irish"); what I praised was the new themes they brought to the stage. "Luck" featured the first dramatic treatment of a classic racist Boston type, "Mrs. Donovan;" meanwhile "Creatures" put a fresh twist on the zombie as a metaphor for white racism. In contrast, Diamond just doesn't really have a new idea. I'm sorry, but she doesn't; I'd be far more forgiving of her structural gaps if she did.