Credit: Michael Brosilow

L
ast week I opened a review by calling An Enemy of the People the
current Ibsen of choice, given the number of productions and adaptations
it’s fostered in Chicago over the last few months. I had no idea how right
I was. You know what Lydia R. Diamond’s latest, Smart People,
turns out to be? That’s correct.

Diamond has updated the material to the late aughts (specifically 2007-’09,
the two years leading up to Barack Obama’s inauguration) and turned it to
her own trenchant uses—uses made vivid in Hallie Gordon‘s staging for
Writers Theatre. But An Enemy of the People is down there beneath
the changes, all right. And the playwright lets us know the resemblance is
intentional by putting one of her characters in an (offstage) mounting of
the 1883 original.

If you were paying attention last week you know that Enemy
concerns a middle-aged Norwegian physician named Thomas Stockmann, who
discovers that toxins from upstream factories have leached into the water
feeding the mineral baths crucial to his hometown’s lucrative tourist
trade. Stockmann starts crusading to get the baths shut down, cleaned up,
and rebuilt with safety in mind. Spooked by the expense involved, the
powers that be would rather shut down Stockmann. Fortunately for them,
they’ve got a valuable ally in Stockmann himself. The doctor’s arrogance
and naivete, his stridency and inability to maintain a tactical silence
guarantee that his causes will forever be lost.

The Stockmann figure in Smart People is the all too aptly surnamed
Brian White (Erik Hellman), a “golden boy” Harvard neuroscientist whose
research has led him to the conclusion that white folks have a literal hate
center in their brains that, like it or not, makes them racist down to
their DNA. He hasn’t kept a tactical silence about these findings. In fact,
we’re told he put them into an op-ed that ignited a “race firestorm,” made
him an anti-celebrity, and pissed off his department chair, with the
consequence that he’s now a former golden boy teaching 100-level courses.
Needless to say, his once generous funding has gone away.

Still, none of that has sobered him. Au contraire: opprobrium just makes
him double down. Stockmann arrogant and Stockmann strident (Stockmann naive
too, really, though he talks like he’s been wised up), Professor White
doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and it appears to him that Harvard harbors a
surprisingly high number of fools for such a prestigious institution. He
scorns his students and talks, shall we say, impudently to the department
chair, all the while wondering why they can’t comprehend his genius. Along
with everything else, he’s Stockmann blind.

Not that he’s completely isolated. True to her title, Diamond surrounds
White with a few smart people. His basketball buddy is Jackson Moore
(Julian Parker), a black, Harvard-trained medical doctor currently serving
his surgical internship and stoking his own prodigious resentments. White’s
girlfriend, Ginny Yang (the fearless Deanna Myers), is an Asian-American,
tenured psychology professor at Harvard who knows she’s got to run twice as
fast to stay ahead of her Caucasian colleagues and has therefore turned
herself into a zeitgeist-catching machine at the expense of anything
resembling a human affect. Ginny keeps her ever-mounting stress at bay
through sex and clothes buying. (Some of the sharpest scenes in this sharp
piece of work show her verbally annihilating sales clerks.) Finally,
there’s Valerie Johnston (Kayla Carter), a black actress with an MFA from
Harvard’s American Repertory Theatre, supporting herself by sorting index
cards for White. As thoroughly acculturated as any Ivy League
great-grandchild of European immigrants, Valerie nevertheless finds herself
having to act black—or, more accurately, a conception of black—at
depressingly funny auditions.

Best known as the author of Stick Fly, which centers on a family
of affluent African-Americans, Diamond knows her way around the
preoccupations of elites and the anxieties of minorities, and how distorted
life can become for those with a foot in both worlds. Jackson, Ginny, and
Valerie speak the language of privilege without the sense of security
privilege is supposed to afford them—though, interestingly, considering the
political history of the last nine years, Diamond allows them (and us) a
glimpse of something better just as Obama is being sworn in.

Brian, meanwhile, is fighting his way off the mountaintop, one
self-destructive, suspect thesis at a time. The particular form his
rebellion takes says a lot about his own demons, at which Diamond, Gordon,
and Hellman give us a long, hard, humiliating look late in the play. Smart People ends with an image as, well, powerfully abject as any
I’ve seen in years.   v