'Smart People' review: Prisoners of their Politics

Posted November 26, 2020

Smart People Wsj Marquee

By Terry Teachout, The Wall Street Journal

Lydia R. Diamond’s “Smart People,” a hard-edged satire of life among the academic multiculturati, was first performed off Broadway in 2016 in a production directed by Kenny Leon. I praised the play at the time as “intelligent and provocative enough to put you in mind of Tom Stoppard, ” and I wasn’t even slightly surprised to see it taken up in short order by regional theaters. A four-character play with minimal scenic requirements, it also lends itself to small-scale bare-bones production, which makes it ideally suited to webcasting. Accordingly, Wisconsin’s American Players Theatre, America’s finest classical theater festival, has now put “Smart People” online as part of the company’s “Out of the Woods” series of Zoom-based play readings.

True satire leaves no sacred cows unbutchered, and “Smart People” definitely qualifies. Ms. Diamond’s characters are Valerie ( Cassia Thompson ), a well-heeled Black actor; Jackson (Rasell Holt), a Black surgical intern; Ginny ( Amy Kim Waschke ), an Asian-American professor of psychology; and Brian (Jeb Burris), a white neuroscientist. As I wrote in my original review, they’re all “very smart, very attractive, very smug, very prickly, and competitively progressive, by which I mean that they preface every other sentence they utter by assuring you of the impeccability of their liberalism.” Ms. Diamond, who also teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago, doubtless needed a fair amount of nerve to skewer the kinds of people she presumably sees at work every day, but “Smart People” is nothing if not fearless, and line after line glistens with the results of sharp-eared observation. (Brian: “I want to prove that all whites are racist.” Valerie: “Wow…that’s kind of hot when a white guy says that.”)

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