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‘Smart People’ review: Where’s the story?

Tessa Thompson and Mahershala Ali star in

Tessa Thompson and Mahershala Ali star in "Smart People." Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

Critics repeatedly clamor for new plays that tackle current cultural and political issues head on. But even when a work like that comes along, although it deserves notice, it still needs to be engaging enough to actually hold our attention.

Playwright Lydia R. Diamond, whose family drama “Stick Fly” had a brief Broadway run in 2011, now casts a critical eye on everyday race relations and unconscious racism in “Smart People,” which is receiving its New York premiere Off-Broadway at Second Stage under the direction of Kenny Leon (“The Wiz Live!” on TV, “Fences” and “A Raisin in the Sun” with Denzel Washington).

It revolves around four young adults who work at or attend Harvard University: an African-American surgeon (Mahershala Ali), a white cognitive science professor (Joshua Jackson), an Asian-American psychology professor (Anne Son) and an African-American drama student (Tessa Thompson).

The play consists mainly of short, two-person interactions as the characters go about the Cambridge campus in 2008, in the shadow of the Obama campaign. They do not all come together until a dinner party at the end.

Besides the characters venting ongoing frustrations about their careers and getting into meandering discussions on the presence of racism, no overall storyline develops and very little occurs for two hours and 15 minutes. It’s hard to imagine the play appealing to an audience other than the academic types that it depicts.

Leon draws shaded, believable performances from the quartet, but the play might have been more entertaining had he placed more emphasis on the humor in the script. It also may work better if cut down to 90 minutes.

If you go:

“Smart People” plays at Second Stage through March 6. 305 W. 43rd St., 2st.com.

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