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‘Smart People’ hobbled by script and Joshua Jackson

L to r: Tessa Thompson, Joshua Jackson, Mahershala Ali and Anne Son confront racial divides in "Smart People."

L to r: Tessa Thompson, Joshua Jackson, Mahershala Ali and Anne Son confront racial divides in “Smart People.”

As the comedy-drama “Smart People” covers the combustible subject of racism, it delivers a couple of other undisputable truths.

First, a play that’s topical isn’t necessarily illumininating. Second, an actor who has given solid performances on screen isn’t a sure thing on stage.

Too bad that’s the case with this heavy-handed play written by Lydia R. Diamond (“Stick Fly”) and directed by Kenny Leon (“A Raisin in the Sun”) and featuring Off-Broadway rookie Joshua Jackson (“Dawson’s Creek” and “The Affair”). He is the biggest name on the marquee and the weakest link on stage.

The sometimes-entertaining two hours follow four Harvard brainiacs on the eve of Barack Obama’s election. Brian (Jackson) is a neuropsychiatrist whose studies prove that whites are hard-wired for prejudice. Ginny (Anne Son) is the Chinese-Japanese-American psychology professor studying identity he meets cute over shop talk.

Jackson (Mahershala Ali), who’s black, is a dedicated and demanding African-American doctor. Valerie (Tessa Thompson) is an aspiring black actress who cleans houses to make money he meets cute when she cuts her head and needs stitches.

The four characters collide in various ways, mostly in twos. Wherever they are — in bed, a basketball court, an audition room, restaurant, a clinic — racial and sexual tension and stereotypes hang in the air and spike the conversation. It’s terrain worth exploring. But for every scene that comes alive with humor, there are two that turn didactic. The plot leads to a dinner party for four which, like “Disgraced,” explodes with racial epithets.

Worse, Jackson embodies Brian poorly, offering little connection to words he’s saying. He delivers lines like a Sam Donaldson cyborg.

Son succeeds best with what she’s given. Ginny has the play’s most cringe-worthy scene when she ironically goes geisha and fellates Brian. She also gets the best moment when she wryly points out that the conversation of race isn’t just black and white.

Everyone’s a little bit racist — and the object of racism. It’s a moment worth waiting for — when “Smart People” shows its albeit limited smarts.

jdziemianowicz@nydailynews.com

Tags:
theater reviews ,
mahershala ali ,
tessa thompson ,
joshua jackson ,
anne son

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Music & Arts – NY Daily News

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