BWW Review: Boston Premiere of Mamet's RACE
Written by David Mamet, Directed by Robert Walsh; Janie E. Howland, Scenic Designer; Charles Schoonmaker, Costume Designer; Scott Pinkney, Lighting Designer; Rebecca K. David, Properties Designer; Leslie Sears, Production Stage Manager
Love them or hate them, it is impossible to simply sit back and relax during David Mamet's plays. True to form, on the opening night of Race, now receiving its Boston premiere at the New Repertory Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown, I found myself on The Edge of my seat as his words bounced around the stage like the silver balls in a pinball machine. Under the direction of Robert Walsh, the grit and grime of Mamet's coarse comedy are palpable, like having a rubdown with verbal sandpaper.
Mamet's dialogue doesn't go from zero to sixty; it starts at sixty and maintains a high rate of velocity. The audience is strapped into the passenger seat of this high performance vehicle and compelled to hold on for the wild ride. The inflections, pace, and changes in volume in the increasingly heated conversations command rapt attention thanks to the four member cast of Ken Cheeseman, Cliff Odle, Patrick Shea, and Miranda Craigwell. Walsh's kinetic blocking and the precision of the dialogue are organic, making it feel like we are eavesdropping on the legal strategizing that happens behind closed doors. Mamet shows us how the sausage is made and it ain't pretty.
Charles Strickland (Shea) is a successful Caucasian businessman accused of raping an African-American woman. He deliberately engages the bi-racial law firm of Jack Lawson (Cheeseman) and Henry Brown (Odle), Caucasian and African-American respectively, to defend him, even as he maintains that he has done nothing wrong. Lawson and Brown are nobody's fools and put Strickland through a rigorous process to determine whether or not they wish to take the case. As they proceed, Lawson involves their young, attractive African-American associate Susan (Craigwell) in a quasi-Socratic exercise to professionally mentor her, as well as to elicit her views as a minority. As the story unfolds, both of these roads take many twists and turns, exposing information and disclosing deception and lies.
Mamet is a master provocateur, but when the subject is race, it doesn't take much to get people going. The playwright says his play is intended to be an addition to the national dialogue about race – you know the one that was supposed to happen when we finally elected an African-American president – and his characters actually say things that are rarely spoken in our p.c. world. For example, when Susan confronts Lawson for having investigated her prior to hiring her, he not only admits that he did, but that he did so with greater rigor because of her color. His mitigating reason was his awareness that it would be more difficult to discharge her for cause once she was on the payroll, also because of her color. This is only one of many difficult exchanges between the characters and, often as not, brutal statements are hurled from Brown at or about Susan.
Regardless of his lawyerly cunning, Cheeseman's energy and vitality make Lawson come across as a decent guy who is doing the best he can in a landscape loaded with land mines. He wants to take Strickland's case because it is a legal challenge (and will pay big bucks) and the racial aspect is only one facet. Odle shows Brown to be the realist, the guy who sees things as they are and wants to do damage control before the damage occurs. Both lawyers are far more sympathetic than their prospective client. At first blush, Shea appears docile, if somewhat blustery, but his outward passivity masks his secrecy and overall desire to be excused out of some bizarre sense of entitlement. Craigwell exudes intelligence and dignity, while she laps up the instruction from Lawson and seems eager to make a contribution to the firm. The resolution of the play hinges on Susan's quiet metamorphosis and Craigwell performs it seamlessly.
Janie E. Howland creates a contemporary office for the law firm with leather furnishings and glass walls with wooden dividers, draped with vertical blinds, which give the appearance of shelves lined with books. The success of The Players is reflected in their well-dressed attire by costume designer Charles Schoonmaker. Lighting Designer Scott Pinkney segues from one scene to the next by fading and brightening the lighting and contributes an exclamation point to the abrupt conclusion.
Race is not so much to be enjoyed as to be experienced or endured. The subject matter is discomfiting, albeit important, and a dramatization that is well done is a good vehicle to drive the discussion. The New Rep production succeeds in that regard. Love it or not, it gives you plenty to think about on the ride home.
Photo credit: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures (Miranda Craigwell, Kenneth Cheeseman)