David Mamet's play Race, about a rich, white guy seeking a law firm to defend him from accusations of raping a black woman, ought to feel ripped from the headlines — even though it premiered on Broadway nearly five years ago.
The play's L.A. premiere, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, comes at a time when rape and race are making their all-too-regular return to the national zeitgeist. College students are forcing a conversation about how their campuses handle complaints of sexual assault — with one young woman famously vowing to lug a mattress around NYU until the student she has accused of assault is expelled. Meanwhile, the nation has been riveted by the protestors in Ferguson, Missouri, who have refused to go quietly after yet another young black man was shot by a white police officer. Want a combination of rape and sex? How about the events in Steubenville, Ohio, last year, in which two teens — one white, one black — were found guilty of raping a young girl while friends photographed and videotaped the attack?
Yet Race feels oddly stale, seemingly content to argue about yesterday's news rather than delving into today's variations on it. It's as if nothing has changed in Mamet's world since O.J. Simpson roamed Brentwood. It's a missed opportunity.
In place of urgency, Race does possess a gorgeously cynical, philosophical premise and some sparkling writing. Jeffery P. Eisenmann's spacious, tomblike law office setting is strikingly authentic and visceral.
The dramatic equation in the 90-minute production (with intermission; Act 1 runs less than 40 minutes) turns on the question of whether law partners Jack Lawson (Chris Bauer), who's white, and Henry Brown (Dominic Hoffman), who's black, will agree to represent Charles Strickland.
Bauer and Hoffman both give very strong performances. There's a twinge of vulnerable humanity beneath Bauer's no-nonsense skepticism, and Hoffman carries a similar world-weariness, borne of trying too many cases.
But DeWanda Wise, who plays Lawson's newly hired black intern, Susan, turns out to be the play's linchpin. Her inexplicably robotic performance does the production no service. As the accused, Jonno Roberts parades around with such a mysterious veneer that his character remains cryptic. In the latter case, it's probably not fair to blame the actor; this is part of Mamet's design. The play is a kind of mystery.
Like that old chestnut Twelve Angry Men, Race takes as its subject the justice system without actually showing a trial. In some ways, the two plays survey similar ground, a half-century apart. There, the accused is an impoverished minority. Here, the accused is privileged and white. Entrenched racism is the constant.
However, Race takes a far more cynical view of the power of persuasion, and of the legal system itself. In Reginald Rose's 1954 drama, evidence is capable of overcoming biases. The cranky, all–white male jury eventually succumbs unanimously to the unimpeachable logic that undoes the credibility of key witnesses.
In Race, Mamet moves beyond such naivete. There is no persuasion, because facts are slippery things that don't much come into play. Take something that should be inarguable evidence, such as the sequins on a dress that was allegedly ripped from the victim's body. The sequins invariably should be scattered around the hotel room where the alleged rape took place. If the sequins aren't there, one could reasonably infer that the victim removed her dress of her own free will, which torpedoes her claims of sexual assault. No witnesses, from a cleaning lady to the initial police responder, mention scattered sequins in their statements.
Yet, although the sequins are nowhere to be found in anybody's testimony, they're attached to multiple affidavits. Mamet literally detaches evidence from justice.
The facts are playthings, perceptions, a part of clashing fictions. As Lawson keeps stressing, the role of the defense is to shatter one fiction in order to replace it with another. There is no actual conversation. There is only victory and defeat. This blazing insight into the nature of discourse — and the lack thereof — in the 21st century may be Race's greatest virtue.
Lawson: Belief. Cannot be controlled. One believes. People are good, people are bad. God exists. Or the mob killed Kennedy. The appearance of belief. May be induced or extorted. People may be: coerced, seduced or suborned, into momentarily acting against their beliefs.
Strickland: “Induced or extorted.”
Brown: The Law, Mr. Strickland, is not an exercise in metaphysics. But an alley fight.
The fascination in Race is, ironically, more cerebral than emotional. This also has to do with the rigid cadences and repetitions — echoes of Mamet's Oleanna — that Mamet employs. Under Scott Zigler's direction, this is a more formalist than dynamic work, as though the playwright is goofing around with the plot points of a thriller but simply hasn't the energy or the interest to maximize the dramatic possibilities.
Race employs the same reverse discrimination found in Oleanna, with the same knowing and justified contempt for all of his characters (though some are more contemptible than others).
“You think black people are stupid?” Susan challenges Dawson.
“I think all people are stupid,” he replies. “I don't think blacks are exempt.”
And there you have it. Substitute “morally bankrupt” for “stupid,” and you have Mamet's entire world view.
RACE | By David Mamet | Center Theatre Group at Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City | Through Sept. 28 | (213) 628-2772 | centertheatregroup.org