David Mamet's Controversial Play 'Race' Gets L.A. Premiere At The Kirk Douglas
Shortly before David Mamet's "Race" opened on Broadway, the playwright himself took the unusual step of contributing an explanatory essay to the New York Times about his potentially controversial new work. "I have never spent much time thinking about the themes of my plays," Mamet asserted, "as I have noticed [that] when an audience begins to talk about the play's theme, it means the plot was no good. But my current play does have a theme, and that theme is race and the lies we tell each other on the subject."
Almost exactly five years after the publication date of that NYT article, "Race" is finally getting its Los Angeles premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, and as Mamet perhaps implied, its plot is not among his strongest. Still, in addressing what one of the play's characters describes as "the most incendiary topic in our history," the play comprehensively fulfills what Mamet has elsewhere described as theater's essential mission to address "a seemingly unresolvable social problem," a societal "unconscious confusion," in a way that we could not rationally consider anywhere else.
The entire play takes place in the conference room of a three-attorney criminal defense law firm where we initially see the two middle-aged partners grilling potential client Charles Strickland (Jonno Roberts), a publicly-prominent Wall Street one-percenter type whom the DA has charged with raping a young black woman in a hotel room. One of the partners, Jack Dawson (Chris Bauer) is white; the other, Henry Brown (Dominic Hoffman), is black. The third lawyer, Susan (DeWanda Wise), also black, is a novice associate with Ivy League law review credentials, who starts out quietly taking notes on the discussion, but soon becomes critically involved in the firm's strategic disposition of Strickland's case.
The overt (and obviously questionable) premise of the play and the partners' understanding of Strickland's prospects before a jury is that the deck is stacked against the accused because no one wants to let a white man off the hook for a crime against a black victim. "We're thrilled you're guilty," explains Brown. "Because of the calendar. Fifty years ago, you're white? Same case, same facts, you're innocent. This is the situation in which you discover yourself."
Dawson believes Strickland is innocent, while Susan is convinced he's guilty but still recognizes his right to a defense. It is not long, though, before Dawson's professional cockiness, in classic Mametian fashion, prevents him from even noticing a few boneheaded statements he makes about the racial politics of the case, racial politics in general and Susan's own status as a young black woman in his employment. Inevitably, then, her own agenda shifts from cooperation to confrontation.
The conflict between a young woman protégée who turns the tables on her older male professional mentors may bring to mind Mamet's earlier plays "Speed-the-Plow" and "Oleanna," even if our sympathies are far less one-sided here than in that latter play. The basic problem with "Race," though, is that for all the firepower generated by the accusations, recriminations, apologies and betrayals flying back and forth between the attorneys, the real consequences of their decisions are borne not by themselves, but by their client Strickland, who's not even onstage that much and strikes us as little more than a helpless dud when he is. In Mamet's better plays, the characters claw at each other's souls and fates to save themselves; in "Race" the characters' arguments are their own, but the stakes pile up largely outside of their arena.
Veteran Mamet director Scott Zigler grants the intricacies of the characters' respective grievances a clear airing, and all four cast members successfully maintain the intensity that Mamet's dialogue ratchets up for them. The floor to ceiling shelves lined with law books which subtly dominate set designer Jeffery Eisenman's spacious conference room leave no doubt that we are all at the mercy of these officers of the court and their manipulations of the rules.
"Race" plays every evening except Monday, plus matinees Saturday and Sunday, through September 28. Tickets $25 through $55 (plus a 10% service charge) on the CTG website. $33.75 and $30.25 tickets available for some performances on Goldstar.