AURORA | Leaving a performance always elicits some kind of emotion from an audience. Elation after a show that was pure joy. Disappointment at having spent the past few hours struggling with a muddled script and iffy acting.
But then there is the night of ambivalence.
No matter how much discussion and contemplation is done after the show, you can’t figure out exactly how to feel. It isn’t that the play wasn’t enjoyable or was full of groan-inducing lines. It’s just that there’s something about it all, something you can’t put your finger on, that leaves you wondering if you are glad to have been a part of the experience.
Denver Center for the Performing Arts production of Lydia R. Diamond’s 2016 play “Smart People” is that type of show. A deep dive into racism, bigotry and classism, the play tells the story of four characters in and near Harvard University between 2008 and 2009, ending with President Barack Obama’s inauguration. Despite exquisite performances, slick production and a thicket of great lines, it’s hard to figure out if it was something I’m glad I saw.
Maybe it was that out of the four characters in the play, it was impossible to feel connected to any of them, for better or worse. There’s Valerie, an African-American actor with a Masters in Fine Arts, but who is still struggling to make it big and isn’t above manipulating her parents for enough money to make ends meet. Ginny, an Asian American psychiatrist who’s studying the psychological ramifications of marginalization and fetishization of Asian women. Jackson, an African-American surgical intern at Harvard Medical School that also runs a free clinic. And Brian, a white neuroscientist at Harvard whose research focuses on whether white people are genetically predisposed to racism.
The play starts with a series of overlapping monologues to unseen recipients. The play goes on like that until the four characters’ lives begin to intersect in smaller and smaller circles. By the end of the play, the lives of the four characters are completely intertwined as the pressure that has built on each of them since the beginning of the play breaks in the penultimate scene.
Issues of race, class and sexism are never easy subjects to deal with for an audience, a cast or a playwright. And difficult as it may be, it’s irresistible ground that needs to be explored and audiences need to be taken into uncomfortable territory. But the hard issues at the heart of the play aren’t what makes “Smart People” such an ambivalent experience. It’s the four characters the playwright has chosen to give it up to the audience.
While full of traits and foibles, Valerie, Ginny, Jackson and Brian come off as cardboard cutouts there to represent their gender, race and issue. The play isn’t about four distinct characters and how they deal with a society that warps each of us and crams us into boxes based on our race, sex and creed. Instead it’s four representations that are placed into a scenario to make a larger point about race, class, sex and society.
Despite the spot-on performances, it’s hard to connect with a single character, as an ally or a foe. By giving us representations of groups to make a point, the audience is kept at arm’s length of the story that’s going on in front of them.
The play’s raison d’être, and the talent of the cast, means it’s still an experience worth the time in the theater. Just don’t expect that time to be spent connecting with characters that will stay with you after the house lights are turned on.