Let’s Talk About Race

5. November, 2011 Theater No comments

David Mamet’s play Race is a fine example of truth in advertising.  It’s a play about race, and pretty much nothing but race. A powerful old white businessman has been accused of raping a young black woman, and he’s looking to switch law firms to represent him because one of the partners at the new firm is black. Pretty much all the conversation among the lawyers—a white male partner, a black male partner, and a young African-American woman who’s some sort of junior associate or otherwise new hire at the firm—about whether to take the case or how to defend the client comes down to second-guessing racial preconceptions.

Chris Butler and Anthony Fusco in Race. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Two years after the play’s premiere on Broadway, American Conservatory Theatre is giving Race its West Coast debut in a sharp production helmed by Irene Lewis, the former artistic director of Baltimore’s Centerstage, featuring an entirely nonlocal cast except for ACT core company member Anthony Fusco.

Mamet has been a frequent presence on ACT’s stage since its 1994 production of the similarly single-issue Oleanna. Recent years have brought his limp political satire November, strong revivals of Sexual Perversity in Chicago and Speed-the-Plow, and his masterful adaptation of Harley Granville-Barker’s The Voysey Inheritance.

Chris Barecca’s impressive set shows a long wall of tall shelves of legal books with near-identical spines, and the bookshelves continue into the next room, visible through a glass wall. When the play starts, the African-American lawyer, Henry Brown, is already giving the prospective client, Charles Strickland, a dressing down. “You know what you can say to a black person on the subject of race?” “Nothing,” Strickland says ruefully. “That is correct,” Brown says.

Chris Butler has a great mix of sardonic humor and mocking hostility as Brown, and Fusco’s Lawson is refreshingly forthright, if often insulting, about his cynical view of human nature. He quizzes and indulges the junior associate, Susan, like a prize pupil, and when she asks him if he thinks black people are stupid, he says, “I think all people are stupid. I don’t think blacks are exempt.” (I’m glad I didn’t know when I saw the play that James Spader originated the role of Lawson, or else it would have felt like Mamet was writing Boston Legal fan fiction.) Kevin O’Rourke is a standard stodgy fuddy-duddy as Strickland, although marginally interesting in his self-defeating urge to redeem himself, but he’s rarely onstage to begin with.

Susan Heyward’s Susan is a cipher. She’s smart and able to hold her own in a debate, but she’s usually in the role of the other guy in a Socratic dialogue, being constantly one-upped by Lawson. There’s sometimes a hint of simmering resentment, but she holds her private thoughts back from the audience as much as from her employers.

The dialogue’s more mannered and intellectual than the fast-paced, interrupting profanity that’s become the stereotype of “Mametspeak,” although it certainly shares his frequent obsession with semantics.  The script is packed with sharp, amusing one-liners (“The law, Mr. Strickland, is not an exercise in metaphysics but an alley fight”), but if often feels circular, revisiting the same points again and again. Lawson asks Susan if she thinks Strickland is guilty, for instance, when she’s volunteered that opinion two or three times already.

All the talk about how lawyers care only about winning, not about guilt or innocence, isn’t exactly going to surprise anybody. Similarly, the observations about race and the things people will do to convince others or themselves that they’re not racist are notable more for their oh-no-he-didn’t candor than for any deep or novel insight. It’s interesting that ACT is producing Race the same year (but not the same season) that it did Clybourne Park, a much more rich and layered play that was also very provocative about racial preconceptions. But Mamet’s thin 90-minute comedy remains entertaining throughout its witty, direct dissection of the subject, and it had patrons debating the plausibility of the scenario and the attitudes in the play all the way out of the theater. It doesn’t add much that’s new or particularly deep to the conversation about race, but it certainly keeps that conversation going.

Through November 13
American Conservatory Theater
415 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #105 of 2011, attended October 27.

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