Review: ‘Smart People’ at Arena Stage

As soon as the lights come up on Lydia R. Diamond’s Smart People, now playing at Arena’s Kreeger Theater, the focus is clear.

Or is it?

Jaysen Wright as Jackson Moore and Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Are four really “smart” people, who are only trying to save the world from itself, being shut down by an entrenched Western, “racist” mindset?

Or are four “smart” people sticking their collective foot in their mouths because they lack the requisite people skills?

However you might answer those questions is, in the end, irrelevant.

For by the end, Smart People, directed with precision by Seema Sueko, will have rocked your comic catharsis with its splendid acting, its insightful and hilarious situations, and its tableau-driven scenography that’s totally picture perfect.

You see, Smart People is a play that is not only right for our time but uniquely right for our area, a Washington, DC, thick with “smart” people out to save the world.

Gregory Perri as Brian White and Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Smart people are also everywhere on TV these days. Dr. House might be gone, but his place has been taken by a veritable bevy of geniuses. From old shows like Bones, Luther, Person of Interest, and the Mentalist to new ones like Scandal, Quantico, Scorpion, Pure Genius… the list literally wraps around the block.

In other words, we live in an age where “smarts” are where it’s at: you can either be a good genius or a bad genius, but god forbid you are anything else, unless you’re a person with mythical powers.

We tend to think that the geniuses will either save us or lead us to ruin. And the characters in Smart People walk right into that worldview.

Valerie, a beautiful, bright, young, talented African-American actress can’t seem to follow directions without making a fuss. So what if she’s probably right.

Lorene Chesley’s comic timing is spot on and hilarious.

Brian, an up-and-coming Caucasian neuroscientist who does research on the biological origins of racism, has just humiliated a roomful of college freshmen calling them both stupid and racist. So what if he’s probably right, you really can’t do that in contemporary America and get away with it.

Gregory Perri’s arrogant prickishness will recall every full-of-himself professor you’ve ever had.

Then there is Ginny, a Chinese-Japanese-American tenured professor doing groundbreaking research on the psychology of Asian girls. She’s giving a lecture but can’t stand the fact that she’s being interrupted by questions from an audience member. So what if she’s probably right and that audience member is nothing but an old school elitist who believes in “Orientalism”.

Sue Jin Song’s dynamic, empathetic performance will totally amaze you with its intricacies.

Finally, there is Jackson, a super gifted, articulate, athletic African-American resident surgeon who has just chopped off a diabetic’s toe because “it was the right thing to do.” So what if that toe had to go…. You get the picture.

Jaysen Wright’s Obama-like coolness lends this character a radiance that will charm you out of your seat.

Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang and Gregory Perri as Brian White. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

And you’ll find yourself remembering countless encounters when discussions ventured into the “forbidden” minefield of race and bias where only the crazy or oblivious come out unscarred.

You see, for Valerie, Brian, Ginny, and Jackson “hell is other people,” as Garcin says in Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit.

If only I didn’t have to deal with worldviews different than my own, then everything would be right with the world: they seem to think.

Each of the four characters is on his or her way up the ladder of success.

Ms. Chesley’s Valerie is on an early rung; having only recently graduated with an MFA in Acting, she has an agent, is getting hired regularly in Equity shows, and will no doubt soon be a TV star.

Mr. Wright’s Jackson is further along, but being an African-American resident surgeon in an ego-filled Boston hospital is proving to be more difficult than the young doctor realized. Although he admits to having “a natural proclivity for just about anything I do” the doctor simply cannot suffer fools lightly.

Mr. Perri’s Brian is a rising academic star, but he arrogantly assumes that his interpretation of the data will be immediately accepted as true. Now, as any neuroscientist should know, it took a century for stick-in-the-mud brain scientists to accept brain plasticity as true despite mountains of evidence.

Ms. Song’s Ginny has achieved tenure at Harvard, but the war she wages for success in her field means that she can never relax, which means that she cannot let down her guard down long enough to discover another human being.

And that desire is really what’s at the heart of Smart People. Strip away the brains, and these folks want to love and be loved.

Clockwise (from top left): Jaysen Wright as Jackson Moore, Sue Jin Song as Ginny Yang, Lorene Chesley as Valerie Johnston, and Gregory Perri as Brian White. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Set Designer Misha Kackman has done a marvelous job creating a world filled with chambers of solipsism from which these characters cannot escape. Lighting Designer Xavier Pierce marvelously gives each frame a uniquely textured surface.

Dede M. Ayite has designed a wonderful panorama of identities, giving the characters subtle differences in clothing paralleling their narrative arcs.

The sound and projection designs of Andre Pluess and Jared Mezzocchi each added texture to the multilayered world of the play.

“It’s complicated,” Ginny repeats on more than one occasion.

“It’s more complicated,” Valerie chimes in a bit later.

Then she emphatically declares: “It’s complicated.”

And, indeed, that’s the lesson to be learned from Smart People. No matter how smart you are the issues of identity and race and bigotry are more complicated than your wee brain will ever fully comprehend.

Or are they?

If “a rose is a rose is a rose,” then is racism…?

For a thoroughly entertaining, hilarious evening of theatre where “smart” people end up making a complete mess of their lives, see Smart People.

You won’t be disappointed.

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with an intermission.

Smart People plays through May 21, 2017, at Arena Stage – 1101 Sixth Street, SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 488-3300, or purchase them online.


Magic Time!: ‘Smart People’ at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater by John Stoltenberg


  1. Looking forward to seeing this. The review itself — so well-written. Makes the play sound enticing. Thank you, Mr. Oliver!

  2. If you don’t see enough of smug, boring, plastic, entitled, foul-mouthed, presumptuous, young people on TV, in the movies, in the press, or in real life, be sure to see this show.

  3. The play is well acted as long as one has a great deal of patience for too much talking, too much over-analyzing, too much interrupting, and stunning amounts of just blah, blah, blah, blah.


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