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Theater Review: Mamet’s ‘Race’; What’s Next?

If any modern playwrights were willing to examine race relations in America, it’s hardly surprising that David Mamet would be among them. From the ambition and sexism of Speed-the-Plow to Oleanna’s focus on a he-said, she-said scenario, Mamet tackles head-on the issues that other playwrights might approach in a more lukewarm way.

The programs and promotional materials for Northern Stage’s production of Mamet’s 2009 play Race, a co-production with Albany, N.Y.’s Capital Repertory Theater, stress that it contains explicit language and sexual references. Set in a law firm, presumably in the present day, where three attorneys, two black and one white, are defending a rich white client against allegations of raping a black woman, Race teems with highly-charged moments that will shock many in the audience, regardless of their background. The challenge that Race doesn’t quite surmount is helping the audience get beyond an examination of their feelings about race to get to another large question: Where do we go from here?

Northern Stage’s Race is anchored by director Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill’s careful staging and pacing. Incisive performances from Kevin Craig West and Timothy Deenihan as the firm’s partners bring the electricity that a play of this nature requires. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and the audience gets a real treat in seeing West’s Henry Brown, one of the firm’s partners, throw open the curtain on potential client Charles’ worldview in the play’s opening lines. Henry says Charles’ was raised by a black maid “who was better to you than your mother,” and confronts his attitudes toward the O.J. Simpson and Rodney King cases. It’s a crisp, biting, yet well-measured performance. Deenihan’s Jack Lawson is also great to watch as he obsesses over the one detail that could make or undo Charles’ case: whether red sequins were scattered around the hotel room, if Charles did indeed rip off the woman’s dress.

Through Deenihan’s performance, we see a character who’s calculating and matter-of-fact, who has no qualms about defending a pompous, privileged client (“I tried being poor,” Jack tells associate Susan. “I didn’t like it”). Yet when he’s forced to confront his own attitudes vis-a-vis race in a strong, telling scene with Susan (Shelley Thomas), Deenihan briefly sheds the barrister’s arrogance, and offers a glimpse into Jack’s shrouded racism via a hiring decision. The scene also awards some of the most profound lines about race to Jack. It is, he tells Susan, “the most incendiary topic in our history. And the minute it comes out, you cannot close the lid on that box. That may change. But not for a long, long while.”

The character of Susan, a young, black associate in the law firm, will only renew the feeling among Mamet’s detractors that the women he writes are, at first glance, naive, but ultimately duplicitous and self-serving. Susan does play a pivotal role as more knowledge about the case is revealed, and Thomas does a commendable job of keeping the audience invested in the character, more than holding her own in the near-explosive scenes with the firm’s senior partners. Even as Susan commits rookie mistakes, she shines a light on the partners’ prejudices, and in turn reveals her own.

Charles, the client whose messy past and current predicament are played out in the offices of Brown and Lawson, has, until now, taken his lucky lot in life for granted, and has never had to seriously ponder race relations. But as Charles, Wynn Harmon could be a little more pompous and smug. When Charles is offstage, Susan mentions to the partners how he sauntered into the office. “Perhaps you’ve heard of me,” she recalls Charles saying. It’s that kind of “Don’t you know who I am?” pomposity that one wants to see in Charles. Whether it’s the way Mamet wrote the character or Harmon’s delivery, we’re not entirely sold on Charles’ arrogance.

Race premiered on Broadway in the fall of 2009. In a New York Times op-ed published at the time, Mamet stated his intention for the play to be a part of the nation’s racial discourse, alongside such historical events as the 2008 presidential election, which saw Barack Obama sworn into office as the nation’s first black president, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the Dred Scott decision.

If one were to wade through Race’s myriad messages to reach the central narrative, they might conclude that despite the progress of the early 21st century, we are still wading through our racially charged past and, as Jack notes, will be for some time. Fair enough. The problem is that Race offers no blueprint for how we can evolve.

Perhaps it’s too much to expect a 90-minute, three-scene play with no intermission to give any sort of roadmap for how we can acknowledge our prejudices and move past them. Nor would anyone expect from Mamet a simplistic, cheery ending with everyone holding hands and singing Kumbaya. But in Race, Mamet needs to do more than shock us in order to make a substantial contribution to America’s racial conversation.

“Race” by David Mamet will be performed at Northern Stage in White River Junction through March 24.

Katie Beth Ryan can be reached at kbryan@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

Related

Letter: A Closer Look at Mamet’s Craft

Thursday, March 21, 2013

To the Editor: Valley News staff writer Katie Beth Ryan has done her homework in reviewing David Mamet’s Race at Northern Stage (“Mamet’s ‘Race’: What’s Next,” March 14). She well knows the text and what Mamet has said about it. She is less attentive to the theater. She does not closely note anything she has seen on stage. In complaining …