‘Race’ traverses a minefield of human emotions, issues
BY HEDY WEISS Theater Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org January 23, 2012 7:28PM
◆ Through Feb. 19
◆ Goodman Theatre,
170 N. Dearborn
◆ Tickets, $25-$89
◆ (312) 443-3800;
Updated: February 25, 2012 8:06AM
With “Race,” now in an airtight, rat-a-tat-tat production at the Goodman Theatre, David Mamet gives us a steel trap of a play — the dramatic equivalent of a brilliantly rigged minefield into which he gleefully tosses a slew of well-timed hand grenades from every conceivable direction.
The detonations come fast and furiously during this verbal and psychological cat-and-mouse siege that involves racial, legal, business and moral matters. And by the time it’s all over, in well under two hours, you are left with a case of shell-shock that is far more invigorating than disabling. Nice work, David, and gutsy to the extreme. Cheers, too, for Chuck Smith, who has directed this post-Broadway production with an almost giddy-making sleight-of-hand, and for his deftly selected cast of four led by the peerless Marc Grapey — an actor of such wit, edge, confidence and sublime timing that he not only convinces you he could be a high-powered, motor-mouthed lawyer, but should probably be given an honorary law degree. (The same is true for Mamet.)
It would be wrong to give away too much about the plot line here. Suffice it to say that Jack Lawson (Grapey), who is white, and Henry Brown (Geoffrey Owens, in a performance of intriguing cool), who is black, are partners in a successful law firm. Susan (an aptly enigmatic Tamberla Perry), is their recently hired associate — a young, attractive, Ivy League grad who happens to be black, and who might or might not be completely trustworthy.
Things are set in motion with the arrival of a potentially new client, Charles Strickland (Patrick Clear, ideally arrogant and clueless all at once), a wealthy, patrician, high-profile (married) man in middle-age who has been accused of raping a young black woman in a hotel room, although he claims they have had an ongoing consensual relationship.
One attorney has already parted ways with Strickland, so he has turned to this racially “mixed” firm that he believes might win the jury’s trust. Lawson and Brown sense they will lose even if they win Strickland’s exoneration, for cases involving race, sex and privilege are invariably intensely polarizing. But ultimately they have no choice in the matter.
As the partners banter about their approach to crafting a defense, the Mametesque Lawson engages in a delicious parsing of techniques for swaying a jury, and bluntly addresses the subtle twists and turns of racial attitudes. Along the way, no grudge and counter-grudge is left unaddressed, and the centuries-old Gordian knot woven of guilt, shame, political correctness, affirmative action policies, hypocrisy, double-talk and pure human nature is pulled ever tighter, with Mamet’s verbal dexterity, gift for aphorisms and comic flair (invariably rooted in bluntness) in full force.
You must listen intently here (Mamet turns the audience into a serious-minded yet gullible jury), but it is a great pleasure to do so, and the reward is the kind of endorphin high that comes with playing a tricky game. Of course every time you have settled on “the truth” you run the risk of suffering whiplash as some new revelation comes into play.
Linda Buchanan’s handsome architectural set, at once weighty and contemporary, suggests a law firm that also is a thriving enterprise. And as Mamet would be the first to remind you, justice is one thing, and business quite another.
One small quibble: A brief pause, rather than a full intermission, would be preferable in this production. Yet no one will want to leave at the break.