“Race” by David Mamet, presented by the American Conservatory Theater. Directed by Irene Lewis.  Scenery by Chris Barreca.  Costumes by Candice Donnelly.  Lighting by Rui Rita.  Sound Design by Cliff Caruthers.  Dramaturg:  Michael Paller.

Henry Brown:  Chris Butler.  Jack Lawson:  Anthony Fusco.  Susan:  Susan Heyward.  Charles Strickland:  Kevin O’Rourke. 

(Guest Reviewer: Steven Grey)

There are courtroom dramas, which most attorneys know are souped up compared to thedrudgery of courtrooms, but “Race” takes place in a law office.  This offers even less opportunity for theatrical outbreaks, as if a wall of law books would soak up any human emotion and conflict in a second.  David Mamet‘s play consists of  90 minutes (no intermission) of lawyers talking about a case, with and without the presence of their client.

There are a few problems with this.  The legal system usually operates on a glacial basis, which is hard to dramatize as cases go on for years. Mamet gets around that by focusing on the early stages of a case:  an older wealthy white man is accused of raping a younger black woman.  He goes to a law firm with two attorneys, one black (Henry) and one white (Jack).  There is also a young assistant, a black woman named Susan.

Chris Butler and Anthony Fusco in A.C.T.'s production of David Mamet's "Race". Photo Credit: A.C.T.

The dialogue clicks for the most part, but some of the racial stuff seems dated and cliched, and the cynicism is too glib.  The characters (and plot) would benefit if the play was half an hour longer, and it would be interesting if the actors playing Henry and Jack traded roles.  Also, it’s odd to have a wealthy Jewish playwright who lives in Santa Monica putting an anti-affirmative action speech in the mouth of a black character.  Mamet is not a lawyer and he’s not black, and while those shouldn’t be automatic setbacks, they are in this case.  In the old days, there was a phenomenon of white people assuming that black people liked them.  In this play, Mamet has a character say that black people hate all whites, and I find that equally presumptuous to assume.  But then, Mamet turned into a reactionary neo-con a couple of years ago, apparently under the influence of a rabbi who voted for Bush in 2004.

I work for a criminal defense attorney, and while race is an important consideration, it is more in the background, while the evidence of the case is in the foreground.  Not surprisingly, while there is much ado about race in this play, and a whole lot of hot air is blown in that direction, the situation hinges on a torn dress.

I also wonder about the rough treatment given to the prospective client by the two attorneys.  In my experience, a client is treated like a scholar and a gentleman—it doesn’t matter if he’s a semi-literate 20-year old gang member who killed three people and laughed about it.  But Henry is openly belligerent to the client.  Someone notes that, “There’s nothing a white person can say on the subject of race to a black person,” and so much for racial dialogue.  Why bother?  At the same time, Henry is on the conservative side—he hates affirmative action and feels Susan was hired on that basis and doesn’t trust her (with good reason, as it turns out).

Susan is a feminist with nice legs—and they are prominently on display.  There is some enigma to her character, but that’s not the fault of the capable actress, Susan Heyward. Anthony Fusco, a core company member of ACT, is adequate in the role of Jack, if a little on the shrill side.  Chris Butler brings a booming voice and a menacing presence to the role of Henry. He’s good in this part and I wish there were more of it.  The tension between Henry and Susan could have been explored a little more, not to say fleshed out.  Kevin O’Rourke as Charles Strickland is convincing as a businessman surprised by his own remorse.

Chric Barreca‘s single set of an office with a huge wall of law books is a bit much, like some legalistic wailing wall, but you know you’re in a law office, and it is effective to see the actors roam freely around the conference table and chairs.

In the end, capable performances cannot rescue Mamet’s script from cliche and unconvincing argument. His intellectual heft was greater before his “conversion” to the right.

I was not in a good mood when I left the theater. I think Mamet’s next play will be called “Senile in Santa Monica”.

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