Story: Charles Strickland has been accused of raping a young black woman, and is in need of a defense attorney. He’s already severed connections with a well-known barrister named Goldstein, although who terminated the relationship is in dispute. Now, the wealthy white businessman arrives at the law firm of Brown & Lawson, which is run by the tandem of Jack Lawson, who is white, and Henry Brown, his black partner. They’re assisted by Susan, a young black paralegal who was hired by Jack over Henry’s objections.
Jack and Henry meet briefly with Charles and then tell him to wait in the lobby while they discuss the merits of whether to take his provocative case, directing Susan to keep Charles occupied while they talk. Unfortunately, Susan takes steps that position Brown & Lawson as the official defense team for Strickland before the two attorneys have made any decision. Did she do this on purpose, or were her actions simply the result of legal inexperience? Does this now put Jack and Henry on the spot? After all, Henry doesn’t even want the case for very valid reasons. And while Strickland professes his innocence, is he telling the truth or merely lying to protect himself from even his own attorneys?
Highlights: Playwright David Mamet is a titan on the modern American stage, having secured his deserved seat of excellence with such contemporary classics as the Pulitzer Prize-winning Glengarry Glen Ross, Speed-the-Plow, American Buffalo and the comparatively recent November. His latest work is Race, which debuted on Broadway in 2009 and is currently being performed in two brief acts on The Rep’s Mainstage. As is his custom, Mamet liberally sprinkles profanities and expletives throughout his pointed, blunt dialogue. If nothing else, Mamet has the courage to rebuke the cowardice of political correctness to say what he wants, when he wants, and let his audiences draw their own conclusions.
Other Info: That said, the stark truth is that one should go rent a DVD of The Verdict, Mamet’s masterful 1982 screenplay about an alcoholic attorney (Paul Newman) who takes a desperate shot at redemption with a case even his best friend (Jack Warden) doesn’t want to see go to court. Newman gave the best performance of his stellar career in that film. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare, but the dialogue between the two defense attorneys in The Verdict seemed so much more natural and convincing than much of the conversations in Race, which often seem artificial and contrived.
Make little mistake about it, Race is more about the legal system in America than about racial relations. While the topic of black/white tensions and adjustments in the 21st century is ever present in this bizarre drama, the story constantly moves in myriad directions that don’t match the essential verbal savagery of other Mamet works. While Race presciently reflected the real-life headlines of International Monetary Fund French executive Dominique Strauss-Kahn being accused of raping a minority hotel employee in New York City a year later, it too often is mired in clumsy, ineffectual humor.
Case in point, the character of Charles as portrayed by Mark Elliot Wilson comes across as what buffoonish TV anchor Ted Baxter might have become if The Mary Tyler Moore Show had morphed into an R-rated Showtime series. Wilson is never able to present Strickland as more than a crude cartoon character, diminishing the impact of the drama. Perhaps that was the intention of director Timothy Near or even the playwright himself, but the end result is unsatisfactory.
Likewise, it’s hard to take seriously the aggressive and blunt behavior of Susan, the paralegal played by Zoey Martinson who confronts Jack about his own improprieties. His insensitivity roils her blood, but she certainly doesn’t seem to mind throwing her tenuous employment out the window, a job Henry doesn’t even want her to have.
Third, the character of Lawson simply never rings true as portrayed by Jeff Talbott. The actor has done splendid work on The Rep’s stage in the past, but he is never convincing as the head of a law firm, appearing more immature than clever, more flippant than entrepreneurial, more goofy than professional.
So that leaves us with the character of Henry. As portrayed by Morocco Omari, he seems the closest to a living, breathing person. Omari’s incisive, penetrating depiction shows us the drive, the intelligence, the passion and the resolve of an attorney determined to make his law firm not only accomplished but lucrative.
All of the performers are solid professionals, as is director Near, with impressive resumes. And Mamet’s body of work speaks for itself. This is a classic case, though, of the parts not translating into a cohesive and meaningful whole.
John Ezell’s set design is an ironically anti-septic, sterile environment of towering clear windows and a clear-top table surrounded by sleek modern chairs, with a large chart showing the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution prominently displayed. Myrna Colley-Lee’s costumes subtly depict the difference between Charles’ impeccably expensive suit with the independent professional look of Henry emphasized by his bow tie and the somewhat ill-fitting togs favored by Jack. Brian Sidney Bembridge’s lighting is consistently stark to match the strident tones of the dialogue, complemented by Rusty Wandall’s spare sound design.
Race brings to mind many adjectives: Weird, bizarre, disjointed, unfocused. Missing are other words such as compelling, exhaustive, searing and stunning, which may commonly be applied to other works in the Mamet canon. So it goes.
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Group: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Venue: Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: Through March 4
Tickets: From $19; contact 968-4925 or repstl.org
Photos courtesy of Jerry Naunheim Jr.