This riveting Interplayers production of David Mamet’s “Race” jams both index fingers down hard on two of the hottest of hot-button issues – race relations and sex – and doesn’t let up for 90 minutes.
Make that both middle fingers. This being a Mamet play, the tone is one of incessant, startling, foul-mouthed cynicism. Ideals of justice, fairness and equality will be brusquely shot down, scorned and dismissed as naïve.
“The whites will screw you,” says the white lawyer Jack to the black lawyer Susan. “Any chance we get. We cannot help ourselves.”
That’s just one of several signature Mamet lines, others of which we can’t print, which all amount to the characteristic Mamet messages: People are out solely for themselves. Money and power always win. The truth belongs to whoever crafts the most cynical lie.
And that, of course, is what makes “Race” so fascinating, so scathing and so entertaining. Mamet’s characters are constantly giving voice to the worst angels of our nature – the unworthy thoughts that pop into our heads – and forcing us to listen to how appalling they sound. It’s the playwright as provocateur.
I’m not sure why this is so refreshing, except to say it’s the polar opposite of a pious, smug, boring sermon.
Interplayers obtained the rights to this play with unprecedented swiftness – “Race” was still on Broadway last August – and I am deeply impressed with how well the theater has served this material. Director Marilyn Langbehn and her cast set a tone that is searing yet stops short, crucially, of sneering.
Mamet’s plot is simple to the point of slim. A rich white businessman, played with quiet reticence by Patrick Treadway, has been charged with raping a black woman. He walks into a law firm with one white partner, one black partner and one new young, black, female law graduate. First, the lawyers must decide whether to take the case. Then they must decide how to win it. The man’s guilt or innocence is of secondary importance.
These lawyers are whip-smart cynical. Their very intelligence is what makes them so dangerous.
Jack, played with merciless charisma by Kevin Partridge, is exactly what people are afraid all lawyers might be. Tall and handsome in a tailored suit, he scorns the idea of justice and sees even a rape trial as a game to be won by the lawyer who sells the best story to the “audience.”
Yeah, that’s what he calls the jury.
The most compelling performance comes from David Casteal as Henry Brown, the black partner. Casteal commands the stage like a boxer, advancing, retreating, rolling his shoulders, moving with grace. He has mastered the delivery of Mamet-speak – classic, staccato dialogue – ripping through his lines with controlled fury. His voice drips with disdain when confronting a particular kind of smug racial ignorance, yet also softens with compassion – a rare and dramatically effective counterpoint to the prevailing sarcasm.
Casteal gets to play “Race’s” best-written character, while Nike Imoru is given the tougher challenge of playing the more mysterious Susan, the fresh law graduate. At the beginning, Imoru plays her as weak and hesitant. Yet as the play progresses, Imoru makes us see that this is an act – steel and deviousness hide behind that timid façade.
Some of Langbehn’s directing choices seemed odd at first. For instance, Susan is initially introduced as kind of a mute prop, standing in the background, holding the client’s coat.
Yet this turns out to be a perfect example of the intelligence that Langbehn brings to this play. She wants us to wonder about Susan, to dismiss her as inconsequential. It sets us up for later plot developments, when we learn that Susan is anything but inconsequential. And it also sets us up for the idea that Susan is, and will remain, an enigma.
What does “Race” ultimately say about race? The answer is not terribly satisfying. There is nothing, says Mamet, that a white person can say about black people that won’t be wrong. The plot itself ends with a question mark.
So if we, the audience, are a jury, it’s best to think of “Race” not as a full trial, but as an exceptionally provocative opening argument.
If we want a verdict, we’ll have to argue it out for ourselves, long after the curtain.