In a state that's been riveted for four months by the Trayvon Martin shooting, it goes without saying: Race is still a huge part of the American justice system. Just ask George Zimmerman, the Hispanic neighborhood watchman who shot and killed the unarmed black Miami Gardens teenager in Central Florida and has been collecting huge donations off the racially charged case ever since.
What better time and place, then, to stage a production of David Mamet's Race, which debuted at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway in 2009 and opened last weekend for a four-week run at GableStage?
If only the production lived up to the social conflicts that inspired it. The play has all the makings of an absorbing, emotionally resonant drama, but it blows a fantastic opportunity to explore the perils and complexities of race and law.
At the heart of Race is a rich white man accused of raping a black woman and the inescapable Pandora's box that such cases inevitably open.
Jack Lawson (Gregg Weiner) is a white lawyer; Henry Brown (Ethan Henry) is his African-American partner. The two attorneys are charged with defending a famous white man, Charles Strickland (Joe Kimble), who has been accused of raping a black woman in a hotel room. Susan, played by a GableStage newcomer, the spry and talented Jade Wheeler, is their African-American associate. A smart woman with a bright future, Susan is there to run errands, make phone calls, prepare the case, and learn the trade from Lawson.
The story begins with a visit from the deep-pocketed Strickland, who has already been to a rival law office but claims it wasn't suited for his case. He reveals with uncommon frankness that he wants to be represented by a firm with a black lawyer, all the while insisting on his innocence.
The facts of the case — Strickland's accuser claims the two were in his hotel suite when he raped her, a tale backed by the sworn testimony of two credible witnesses who say they heard the crime — serve little purpose other than to lay out Mamet's goal, which is: Let's everybody talk about black folks and white folks!
Brown, while loathing his racist client, gives Strickland his full effort, stating that facts — not his emotions or personal opinions — will win them this case.
"It's a very difficult situation," Hilton Napoleon, a local African-American defense attorney and member of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, says of Brown's challenge. "But the main thing any attorney should know is if they have a bad feeling before a case, they shouldn't take it. If you decide to take that case, you are called to advocate for your client's constitutional rights."
That's exactly the kind of conflict Mamet's plays explore in so ethereal and multifaceted a fashion that they leave audiences breathless. Race delivers much of what's expected from the author of classic plays such as Glengarry Glen Ross, Oleanna, and Speed-the-Plow and films like The Verdict and Wag the Dog. The language is caustic, sharp, and quick. Unfortunately, the performances and language are wasted by an ultimately vacant attempt to tackle an important issue.
For instance, when Susan questions Lawson and Brown's decision to re-enact the scene in the hotel with a black actress, rather than a white one, as the accuser, it's Brown who explains the reason is more than just mere technicalities.
"We will not use a white model," he says, "because the jury will think we're trying to have them forget the victim is black."
That's about as enlightening as Race gets. The play falls short because it disguises the heart of the topic with humor, Mamet-speak, and awkward conversations.
Weiner and Henry, at least, are perfectly in tune with each other. Both actors display their characters' attitudes with cold logic in the face of a convoluted problem. Henry withholds nothing as Brown. He's a man who hasn't forgotten that he's black and that Strickland represents the worst in racist white privileged wealth, but remains decisive in his ability to represent his client without his own prejudices interfering.
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.) Kimble has few lines as Strickland, but his portrayal is pure pompous lack of self-awareness.
Strickland is hateful because Kimble plays him with great honesty. Joseph Adler's direction is also sound, especially his penchant for having his actors use the entire stage. The set is another masterful construction by GableStage set designer Lyle Baskin, who designed the law office with thorough detail, from the bookshelf stacked with legal tomes to the windows revealing the New York City skyline. Baskin's sets always place GableStage's audiences right in the middle of the drama, and this one is no exception.
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Despite the great performances, nothing new is revealed in Race, outside of a reminder that the central conflict is a complicated issue in America and that society has a way to go before we can all hold hands and sing "Kumbaya" together.
Still, Mamet is a meticulous researcher (the play has plenty of legit-sounding legalese), and his characters are multilayered and complex. Those aspects, along with the terrific performances, keep Race from collapsing under its own weight.
It's an entertaining play, with some funny and exhilarating moments, but it leaves a hollow feeling at the end. There are no easy answers when it comes to black-and-white issues. But at least there could have been a conversation starter here.
Unfortunately, Mamet took a big swing and whiffed.