Race may not be David Mamet’s best play. However, it successfully gets the audience thinking that nothing in life is black and white, but race relations are not colorblind.
The simple plot synopsis is that Race is the story of a wealthy Caucasian man who is accused of raping a black woman. The man, Charles Strickland, seeks representation from a small law firm composed of two male partners (one black and one white) and a young female black junior associate. On a broader level, the new production of the play that opened Sunday at the 10-year-old Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City, Calif., raises issues on whether race can or should be ignored as well as ethnic and cultural shame and guilt. While an uneven evening of theater, the performance and topic provide hearty post-theater dinner conversation.
The first act of Race starts strong with barbed one-liners about the legal system and lawyers (always a great target for laughs). The white attorney tells the accused that he assumes he is “not guilty because you are paying us to prove it. If you didn’t, I’d assume you are guilty because it makes a better story.” While they question why another law firm no longer represents Strickland, the lawyers do not question why someone who is that wealthy would seek out a small firm hard up for clients. (That is answered in the third act.)
It is the second act of Race that raises, and the third act that explores, the issue of race and prejudice as well as how legal situations are not quite black and white. However, in spite of its incendiary subject matter, and an abundance of corkscrew plot twists, the real tension in the play is between the attorneys themselves. The play lacks real dramatic struggle overall.
There are abundant lines that broach the taboo topic of racial relations, but not deeply. There are exchanges like: “You think black people are stupid?” the associate asks her white boss. He answers, “I think all people are stupid. I don’t think blacks are exempt.” One of the most honest and thought-provoking lines is that “we all have prejudices, but we try to suppress them.”
A four-character show, the original Broadway production in 2009 was buoyed by a stellar cast: Kerry Washington, James Spader, Richard Thomas and David Alan Grier. The actors in Culver City – Chris Bauer, Dominic Hoffman, Jonno Roberts and DeWanda Wise – are not in their league, but try gamely. The directed by Scott Zigler, however, has them acting wooden and reacting slowly. For example, Roberts plays the accused man, Strickland, with no emotion, gestures or oomph. It is a low-key performance that does not convince the audience to either empathize with or be reviled by him.
In the largest of the four roles, Bauer as Jack Lawson, the Caucasian partner, drives the plot forward with his caustic comments, questions and cynicism. Bauer, who played Detective Andy Bellefleur on HBO’s True Blood, spends the first act postulating as a legal shark, but shows more depth and confusion as to Lawson’s feelings regarding race as the play evolves, particularly with regard to Susan, the associate.
Wise plays Susan, who at first seems like a quiet fly on the wall, but then shows her true colors (pun intended!). Woman in Mamet plays usually provide the plot twist and the role in Race is no exception. Because of her race, Susan has a chip on her shoulder, which is exposed as the play goes on. Wise is subdued until the third act, when her character’s outrage shows some acting chops.
The Kirk Douglas Theater is a great venue for a play like Race that wants the viewers to feel they are in the law firm’s conference room with the actors. It would be nice if there was more to watch in the room, but what is there is to Race is intriguing, if not black and white. Race runs through Sept. 28.
By Dyanne Weiss
Center Theatre Group
Performance on September 7, 2014