'Race': Theater Review

Race Theater Still - H 2014
Craig Schwartz

Race Theater Still - H 2014

The juicy dialogue and intelligent punditry entertain up to a point, but the play is ultimately shallow  

David Mamet's legal satire tackles the American inability to communicate about race

In David Mamet's Race, two veteran criminal lawyers, the white Jack Lawson (Chris Bauer of True Blood and The Wire) and the black Henry Brown (Dominic Hoffman), banter and badger in the playwright's patented patois. They show professional perspicacity about a legal process predicated not on justice, but on trial by combat between competing self-interests and prejudices.

The two characters debate on whether or not to accept as a client Charles Strickland (Jonno Roberts), an obtuse billionaire charged with the rape of a black woman who has just fired his previous high-powered lawyer. They bounce their ideas off their novice, though highly pedigreed, African-American associate, the ostentatiously surname-less Susan (DeWanda Wise), firing off Socratic questioning like assault-weapon fire. The lawyers mercilessly grill their prospective client with confrontational challenges, demonstrating that capable advocacy must proceed from adversarial skepticism.

It’s almost confounding how astute and shrewd Mamet can be when addressing the medieval roots of Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence, while on issues of race itself — as well as gender — he offers little insight beyond manipulative baiting. His wisdom begins and ends with the opening salvo that there is nothing a white person can say to a black person about race without being offensive, which is then precisely what Mamet undertakes to do.

At least it's consistent that Mamet also plays fast and loose with the moral question of the responsibility of representation. Playwrights and screenwriters tend to become so bedazzled by the popular fantasy of an American lawyer finding redemption in the betrayal of a bad client that they fail to grasp that the paramount obligation is loyalty to the client’s interest, else the entire system collapses into an unethical morass. It’s really little more than a high-toned variant of the virtuous lone avenger seen nearly everywhere in the movies.

Race is so relentlessly invested in its ultimately lame twists and vaunted surprises that its failings of coherence cannot be specifically discussed without spoilers. However, plenty could be said about the unarticulated subtext of the author’s own vexacious bugaboos, even as he skewers the posturing ideological grievances of others almost certainly more entitled to their resentments. Suffice it to say that by the denouement, the play has degenerated into a shambles of a serious discourse.

It’s genuinely amusing in the first act to hear Mamet’s ear for scabrous invective spoken by sharply educated intellects in the high-toned conference room, lined with reference tomes. These characters are rhetorically reupholstered versions of the petty street thieves of American Buffalo or the stressed con-artist salesmen of Glengarry Glen Ross, yet they are unmistakably the same house brand. While all the action may be in the talking, the setup is nevertheless riveting.

Then, in a confounding miscalculation, barely a half-hour in, the show breaks for a premature intermission, blunting the forward energy. The play is comprised of only three scenes in a single location, and between the second and third, a time lapse is more than adequately covered by a brief dimming of the lights. So the choice not to conform to the current fashion of 90 minutes straight through seems almost ornery, particularly since both suspense and credibility sag progressively from the start of that not-quite-second act. The observations and development of ideas devolve into the merely clever, before forfeiting even that saving grace.

The two showcase roles of the avaricious yet principled lawyers are stylishly snappy — convincing as old dab hands at the bar, if somewhat less so as longtime partners. Indeed, Race would probably be every bit as effective, and considerably less pretentious and arrogant, as a radio play. But that would deprive listeners of the sardonic way Hoffman has of tilting his head and sinking into his chair with the weight of his dismay over the follies of everyone, himself included. 

Cast: Chris Bauer, Dominic Hoffman, Jonno Roberts, DeWanda Wise

Director: Scott Zigler

Playwright: David Mamet

Set designer: Jeffery P. Eisenmann

Costume designer: Leah Piehl

Lighting designer: Josh Epstein

Presented by Center Theatre Group