Say what you will about David Mamet, he’s always been a playwright who likes to get right to where the action is. As you can probably guess from the title of his latest play, Race — currently getting an intense and riveting production with True Colors Theatre Company at the Southwest Arts Center through March 23 — jumps right into the red-hot center of a contentious subject.
In Race, Andrew Benator and Neal Ghant play lawyers, one white, one black. They are partners in a legal firm who are approached by a white billionaire (Ric Reitz) who has been accused of raping a black woman. The press has been eating up the scandal, and the two lawyers are at first reluctant to take the case, not only because it’s so much in the public eye, but also because it seems like such a clear loser: what jury would sympathize with the accused?
They eventually have to accept it through the mistakes, or possibly machinations, of their African American legal assistant Susan (Tiffany Hobbs). The issues of sex and race, which underlie the case, prove to be explosive in the law firm’s office (the play’s single setting), causing previously latent conflicts and sublimated resentments to come to the surface.
Andrew Benator gives a fantastic performance as the plain-speaking, cynical lawyer Jack Lawson. As he tells Susan at one point, “It’s a complicated world. Full of misunderstanding. That’s why we have lawyers.” For him, race is merely another playing card in the deck he plans to shuffle in front of the dazzled jury: it’s all a form of theater, manipulation.
Ghant does an excellent job as the toughened lawyer Henry Brown, who likewise doesn’t pull punches. His cruel evisceration of Susan’s mistake is gasp-inducing and contrasts beautifully with the more sympathetic aspects of the character that emerge later. Hobbs’ Susan hovers silently in the background for the first movement of the play, but she slowly works her way into its center. Reitz manages to create sympathy and complexity for a character that would seemingly be entirely unsympathetic and one-noted.
Most playwrights tend to give us a taste of the political mixed in with their more overarching interest in the personal and the emotional. But in Race, we actually learn very little about the personal lives of the characters. The emphasis here is on the blood and guts of big issues: the law, race, history. As Alec Baldwin memorably said in the film version of Mamet’s play Glengarry Glen Ross, “Nice guy? I don’t give a shit. Good father? Fuck you. Go home and play with your kids.” It’s seemingly something of a guiding philosophy for Mamet himself.
Some critics faulted the New York production for not being discomforting enough. Mamet should, they argued, be making his audience feel more uncomfortable, more impugned. But I actually think this is one of the play’s strengths. Though the characters are dealing with some intense issues, we’re permitted to examine unresolveable, cringe-worthy conflicts anonymously, collectively, in the theater.
That’s what it’s for, after all. Race is a Molotov cocktail, and though it’s never lobbed directly at us, we still watch it explode. The play’s one act clips along at a heart-quickening pace, and though the ending is abrupt — I actually felt the play could have been slightly longer — there’s plenty to satisfy theatergoers hungry for some weighty, smartly written drama.
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