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‘Smart People’ review: Navigating racial land mines with skill

Tessa Thompson and Mahershala Ali in

Tessa Thompson and Mahershala Ali in "Smart People" by Lydia R. Diamond ("Stick Fly") directed by Tony winner Kenny Leon, Off-Broadway at Second Stage. Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy

WHAT “Smart People”

WHERE Second Stage Theatre, 307 W. 43rd St.

INFO $60-$70; 212-246-4422; 2st.org

BOTTOM LINE Provocative and enjoyable journey through racial land mines

There are racial and emotional land mines all around “Smart People,” the provocative, sharply observed and shrewdly breezy new play by Lydia R. Diamond. The playwright, whose “Stick Fly” marked her promising Broadway debut in 2011, more than satisfies that promise with a quick-thinking, fast-talking look at four, yes, smart — not to mention good looking — Harvard people in the confusing and heady year before Obama’s election.

Directed with sly, stark sleekness by Kenny Leon (“A Raisin in the Sun,” “The Wiz Live!”), the serious comedy introduces disparate high-achievers who meet cute and cannot keep themselves from puncturing the relationships with sharp questions.

Joshua Jackson plays the white, liberal neurobiologist trying to prove the biological basis of racism. Anne Son is the hyper-competent, cool psychologist studying third generation Asian-American women. Tessa Thompson is the black actress whose prestige academics doesn’t mean she gets the auditions for colorblind parts. And Mahershala Ali is the gifted black surgical resident who keeps hitting the barriers of expectations.

Those descriptions may make the characters sound like categories instead of individuals, but terrific acting and nuanced writing twist stereotypes into high-level thrills.

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