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‘Pithy’ Mamet play, ‘Race,’ lands at Interplayers

Thu., March 31, 2011

Actors Kevin Partridge, left, David Casteal, center, and Patrick Treadway rehearse a scene from David Mamet’s play “Race,” set to debut tonight at Interplayers and run through April 16. (Jesse Tinsley)
Actors Kevin Partridge, left, David Casteal, center, and Patrick Treadway rehearse a scene from David Mamet’s play “Race,” set to debut tonight at Interplayers and run through April 16. (Jesse Tinsley)

No, “Race” is not about track-and-field.

Not about NASCAR.

It’s the latest David Mamet play, fresh off Broadway, about racial relations in America. If you’ve seen Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” or “Oleanna,” you know he believes in tackling tough issues head-on, with a foul-mouthed, razor-sharp wit.

The play is about a law firm – one black lawyer and one white lawyer – defending a white businessman charged with raping a black woman. It is, in Mamet’s own words, “about the lies we tell each other” on the subject of race.

Here are just a few of the terms that critics used in describing the play during its 2009-10 Broadway run: “incendiary,” “spiky,” “flinty,” “pithy,” “Machiavellian,” “crackling,” “syncopated,” “cynical,” “predatory,” “masochistic” and … well, you get the idea. This ain’t exactly “Mamma Mia!”

To say that critics were simultaneously appalled and enthralled is not surprising. What’s surprising is that Interplayers acquired the rights to this show just five months after its Broadway closing in August. This may be the quickest a Spokane regional theater has ever obtained the rights to a Broadway play.

Interplayers Artistic Director Reed McColm employed a blunt, head-on strategy of his own: He just plain asked for it.

At first, Mamet and his agent were reluctant to release the rights so soon to a small regional theater. But then, in McColm’s words, they “looked at a map and said, ‘Oh, yeah, well, go ahead.’ ”

They realized a Spokane run would not infringe on the more lucrative Seattle and Portland markets. A theater in Philadelphia is the only one that has staged this play more quickly.

And Spokane – the city of the Martin Luther King Jr. march attempted bombing – might be an apt choice for a dialogue about this highly fraught issue.

The Spokane production is directed by Marilyn Langbehn, long a respected name in local theater before she headed to California in 2004 to become the marketing and public relations manager for the California Shakespeare Theater.

When McColm called and told her about “Race,” she jumped at the chance because it came during California Shakespeare Theater’s off-season and because it was a play she was enthusiastic about tackling.

“Some of the subject matter is hot-button stuff,” said Langbehn. “… There’s a lot of racially charged language and Mamet doesn’t shy away from using words. He’s completely aware of the power of the words he’s using.”

She said she has assembled a cast that is up to the challenge of his dialogue: Kevin Partridge, David Casteal, Patrick Treadway and Nike Imoru.

Langbehn said she hopes “Race” does something that all good plays should do: spark a dialogue.

Interplayers will hold two “talkback” sessions following the performances on April 6 and 13, and this is the kind of play that will undoubtedly spark dozens of less formal talkback sessions, over drinks after every show.

Even Mamet understands this kind of play has its perils.

“When the audience begins to talk about the play’s theme, it means the plot is no good,” he wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece in 2009.

Some critics accused “Race” of exactly that problem. Variety said it seemed “hatched out of a need to inflame arguments” rather than to tell “this particular story.”

The New York Times was a little more forgiving, saying that it offers “reassuring evidence of Mr. Mamet’s scalpel-edged intelligence” and “ample nutrition for many a post-theater dinner conversation.”

Mamet himself hasn’t been averse to lobbing the first discussion point onto the table, as he did in his Times op-ed: “As a Jew, I will relate that there is nothing a non-Jew can say to a Jew on the subject of Jewishness that is not patronizing, upsetting or simply wrong. I assume that the same holds true for African-Americans.”


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