Thursday, January 26, 2012


The first time I saw David Mamet's Race, I was sure that I was watching another spinoff series of The Practice. James Spader, or Alan Shore, lead the Broadway cast, and his fun-filled facility with dry legal jargon rendered the actual plot of Race mostly inconsequential. So entranced was I, that the story dissolved away, and in its place materialized the speed, the cleverness, and the sexuality of Alan Shore's mind boggling spoken rhetoric. I was on a boat ride to faux-intellect, high vocabulary heaven-- And then the play ended. I was left high and dry by a staged deception; smooth-talked into willful compliance. However, in retrospect, looking beyond the shiny tinfoil wordplay, there was little concrete content to be found.
That production was directed by Mamet himself, and, although he is a proven theatre-maker, the staging was blocky and uninspired. The story was poorly told, and the critical reception was resultantly tepid.

Thankfully Race at the Goodman Theatre, which opened on Monday night, is far more entertaining and dramatically coherent than its Broadway counterpart. Admittedly as a highfalutin, probing provocation on race relations in America, it still falls quite short, merely putting the playwright’s own private paranoia under a public microscope. But as pure, unadulterated legal drama, Race is an abundance of high-octane thrills and chills.

In Race, a wealthy businessman, Charles Strickland, is accused by his lover of raping her at a hotel. As a tiny law firm evaluates the viability of his case, we find out that the woman is black, and the unraveling information begins spiraling out of control. What complicates the characters’ discussion though is that Henry, a lawyer, and Susan, an intern, are African American as well. A situation set up to facilitate a discussion, or rather a lecture, on race, gender, and the law.

The four-person play is quite diminutive in stature for the Goodman's echo-prone Albert Theatre, but the same could be said about several of the company’s recent offerings. Those productions could not fill the cavernous playhouse in such a way as to harness dramatic tension. I know. I was in the back row of the balcony for all of them... Race, however, explodes off the stage, and at its feistiest, bores into you with precision and fervent determination. Much credit is due to Linda Buchanan’s sleek scenic design, which has the smoky appeal of a modern film noir, giving the unassuming office a palpable mood of impending action. Still, the production, try though it might, cannot triumph over the nineties teleplay it has to work with.

But the dated style is not the major issue. There is an inherent pessimism in Mamet's writing that stems from his inability to ask open questions and his annoying penchant for giving definitive answers. Presenting controversial opinions as fact without formidable opposition plays as meritless provocation, and it comes off as irksome. Many of the gasps in the audience are elicited, not by the circumstances and extreme situations, but by foul language.

Mamet's previous work contends that the real world (or his real world) speaks profanely, "f@ck this, f$ck that,” which is where the prevailing Mamet stereotype comes from. But instead of his usual poetically crass landscape, Race uses vulgarity at meticulous, deliberate intervals to give a jolt to the action; to wake up the audience. I overheard a gentleman sitting nearby say, “Race? More like ‘Racy’.” But the play provokes less than it lectures, and the lecture, while witty and humorous, is contrived and well-tread. It tries very hard to be cutting edge, but falls short by about twenty years.

Director Chuck Smith’s new production wisely doesn't give into the playwright's obvious desire for universality. Details on characters, their lives and relationships are given so sparingly in the script that as opposed to being easily relatable, it becomes impossible to connect to. But Smith and his actors have forged new ground on Mamet’s desolate tundra, crafting recognizable surburbanites that Chicago audiences can latch onto.

Marc Grapey and Geoffrey Owens as Jack and Henry respectively layer on frantic character eccentricities and unpredictable tempers, giving this particular law firm a smarmy, sinister exterior. Like Spader, Grapey has the vocal muscularity to tackle Mamet’s lyricism, but unlike the TV lawyer, he injects Jack Lawson with tremendous personality and incomprehensible likability.
Owens, although lethal with a one-liner, cannot give a compelling reason for why his character is in the room. He often fades into the background and plays more like a device than a person.
Tamberla Perry as Susan, the intern, is much too cunning too quickly. Her surprisingly quick grasp of her character’s surroundings creates unnecessary predictability, and weakens the play’s suspense.

While the actors and Chuck Smith have certainly resurrected what I thought was a dead play, they’ve had the benefit of well-publicized moral corruption. When Mamet wrote Race in 2010, the nonspecific courtroom canvas allowed his social commentary, surface though it may be, to take dramatic primacy. Then 2011 happened, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn became a household name. DSK was the head of the International Monetary Fund as well as the widely presumed future President of France - until a Sofitel hotel maid accused him of sexual assault.
The parallels of the former IMF head's trial and that of the fictional Charles Strickland (played with a worried shakiness by Patrick Clear) are undeniable and make Mamet's play endlessly more interesting, reforming it as a unique case study rather than a wealthy, conservative playwright's weighty manifesto.

Are Mamet’s points valid? Sure. But when presenting a personal theory as undeniable social dogma, prepare for holes to be revealed in your argument. DSK got off, and that result, while presently controversial, underlined the importance of circumstance and fact in the legal system. Strauss-Kahn’s case was thrown out because of unearthed revelations about the housemaid’s previous encounters with the law. Ah, there’s the rub! Mamet pays scant attention to the alleged rape victim of his play, and his characters all but ignore her existence relative to their case. For a play that so vehemently attacks cowardice, such an omission is theatrical cowardice at its loudest.

While the play glides with avalanching ferocity for the first hour, the second act becomes a stale series of written contrivances that culminate in a way that’s neither intriguing nor satisfying. Mamet opts to push the legal proceedings aside in order to focus on the characters' personal conflicts. While there is nothing unusual about focusing on character, the problem is that he hasn't created any characters; only voice boxes. Voice boxes who consistently condescend and undermine each other and the playgoers. The only reason the audience continues to listen to them is because of the firestorm of humor, creativity, and unrelenting specificity the actors and the director have gifted the script. The character conflict that ends the play is a yawn, and the final moment of Race sputters out with quiet reservation. Too tired from the sprint.

"Race" plays The Goodman Theatre through February 19