David Mamet's Race Swings and Misses at GableStage

David Mamet's plays can be so ethereal and multifaceted that it can leave you breathless, like being hit by a massive wave. So to judge Race, his 2009 play that opened last night at the GableStage, with this in mind might be unfair. But Mamet is a brilliant playwright. So we must.

And the verdict is: Race is decidedly blunt -- as you'd expect from Mamet -- if not somewhat unsatisfying, which is a bummer because the subject at hand is so meaty.

The subject at hand is, of course, as the title says without a hint of subtlety, race. It's always a weighty issue to take on, but in the capable hands of a master playwright like Mamet, Race plows through at a fever pitch, even if it left us wanting.

Race has all the makings of an absorbing and emotionally resonant drama. Two lawyers, played brilliantly by Gregg Weiner and Ethan Henry, are charged with defending a rich white man, portrayed with a delightful and pompous lack of self-awareness by Joe Kimble, accused of raping a black woman in a hotel room.

Jack Lawson (Weiner) is a white lawyer, Henry Brown (Henry) is his African American partner. Susan, played by GableStage newcomer, the spry and talented Jade Wheeler, is their African American understudy, there to run errands, make phone calls, prepare witnesses, and to learn the trade from Lawson. But Susan turns out to be more than just a probiem.

The accused, the deep-pocketed Charles Strickland (Kimble), has already been to a rival attorney's office, but claims that they weren't suited for his case. He bluntly reveals that he wants to be represented by a law firm with a black lawyer, all while insisting on his innocence.

The facts of the case -- Strickland's accuser claims the two were in his hotel suite when he then raped her, and the sworn testimony of two credible witnesses who claim they heard her being raped -- serve little purpose to the story other than to lay out Mamet's goal here, which is: "Let's everybody talk about black folks and white folks!"

Nothing new is revealed in Race, outside of a reminder that race is always a dicey issue and that we as a society still have a ways to go before we can all hold hands and sing Kumbaya. But Mamet is an intelligent playwright who is meticulous in his research (the play is coated in lawyer-speak), and his characters are multilayered and complex. And that, along with the terrific performances, is really what keeps Race from completely collapsing under its own weight.

Lawson is a no-nonsense attorney who keeps things real, all while keeping his eye on the prize. When asked what the client's racial history is, Lawson replies, "I don't give a fuck." A true lawyer who just wants facts so he can win the damn case. Likewise, Brown, while loathing his client, gives Strickland his full effort, agreeing that facts - not emotion or personal opinions - will win them this case. The commentary here is, of course, the amoral profession of being a lawyer, especially with a sticky case like this one. When Susan questions the lawyers' decision to reenact the scene in the hotel with a black actress playing the part of the accuser, rather than a white woman, it's Brown who explains, "We will not use a white model because the jury will think we're trying to have them forget the victim is black."

Weiner and Henry's performances are perfectly in tune with each other. Both actors disclosed their characters' attitudes and cold logic in the face of a complex issue with sterling portrayals. Henry withholds nothing as the black lawyer Strickland obviously targeted for his defense. Brown hasn't forgotten that he's black, or that Strickland represents the worst in racist white privileged wealth, but he's decisive in his ability to represent his client without prejudice. It's an intelligent character played by an intelligent actor (Henry has been kick-ass in pretty much every play he's been in since moving here from Chicago).

Race gives us everything you'd expect from Mamet. The language is caustic, sharp and quick, and the characters complex and layered. Unfortunately, the performances and language is somewhat wasted by a valiant, but vacant, attempt at tackling an important issue. It's an entertaining play. It's funny and has some exhilarating moments here and there where you think the story will take off. But you can't help feel hollow at the end of it. There are no easy answers when it comes to black and white issues. But you at least expect a conversation starter here. Unfortunately, Mamet took a big swing, and whiffed.

Look for our extended review in this week's issue.

David Mamet's Race runs through August 5 at GableStage at the Biltmore (1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables) Tickets start at $37.50. Call 305-445-1119 or visit gablestage.org.

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