Missed opportunities sink ‘Smart People’ at Huntington

"Smart People" at the Huntington Theatre Company. Credit: T. Charles Erickson
“Smart People” at the Huntington Theatre Company skirts controversy, but doesn’t hit hard enough.
Credit: T. Charles Erickson

“Smart People” begins with a slow, dull first act that employs cliché devices like the flashback to set up the big reveal in the second act. Thankfully, Act 2 has some funny moments, but the piece always feels like a sitcom about nothing that features four borderline-loathsome narcissists. We’ve seen that before.

It’s supposed to be a “controversial” and “fiercely funny” play, according to the Huntington Theatre’s website. It’s not.

Huntington Playwriting Fellow Lydia Diamond seems eager to poke the proverbial hornet’s nest in her tale of four Harvard intellectuals grappling with race, genetics, love and other complexities of being human. But anytime she gets close to the core of these issues, she reverts back to pedestrian dialogue that feels like typical three jokes per page sitcom fare.

In one of the funniest scenes, Brian White (yes, there’s a liberal white guy whose last name is White), calls upon fellow rich, smart white folks to hold the mirror up to racism in their own lives. A searing probe courtesy of an all-out war at the dinner table could’ve brought the house down at this point, while (almost) compensating for earlier lines like “see, white men can jump.” But Diamond instead opts to laugh at the overachieving Asian woman’s inability to nurture.

She also veers close to explosive territory by questioning whether African-American surgical resident Jackson Moore is the victim of racism or suffering from the fallout of being an angry black man with a chip on his shoulder. It’s more potentially great drama that never happens.

While there’s plenty of laughter in Act 2, it’s largely attributable to the stellar acting chops of Miranda Craigwell and McKinley Belcher III. Without them, you’d be left with a script that never reaches its potential.

If you go
“Smart People”
Through July 6
Calderwood Pavilion
BCA 539 Tremont St., Boston
$15 – $80


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