By John Quinn
In troubled times, society needs prophets to set it back on track. Jeremiah saw a nation sliding into idolatry and preached a return to principles of absolute justice and morality. The idols go by different names these days, but worship of pride, fame, wealth, and especially power remain a blot on the common culture. Playwright David Mamet is an unlikely candidate for modern prophet but his powerful jeremiads are the cautionary tales of our times. Mamet rips bandages off festering sores so light and air can help them heal. That’s always a painful procedure.
In his 2009 Broadway play, “Race,” Mamet chose as his theme “race and the lies we tell each other on the subject.” To be more specific, the play exposes the pervasive influence race retains even over stalwart institutions like the criminal justice system. Ordinarily, Mamet’s perception is as swift and lethal as a stiletto in a street fight; here we find more epigram than insight. Yet the writing remains compelling and his casual, trade-mark vulgarities are a wake-up call for a jaded culture. The plot is suitably convoluted, and there is more than a little back-stabbing. “Race” is not great Mamet, but even good Mamet can be great theater.
Mamet doesn’t write likeable characters, but “Race” takes dislike to levels beyond what we’d feel towards oily film executives or slimy real estate agents. The cast comprises three lawyers and an accused rapist. Case closed. The accused, Charles Strickland (John Manfredi), retains a small law firm – partners Jack Lawson (Hank Bennett) and Henry Brown (Harold Hogan) and their young associate, Susan (Lisa Lauren Smith). The charge is rape; Strickland claims the sex was consensual. What complicates the case is the racial aspect.
In a foreshadowing of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn incident, Strickland is a “one-percenter,” and his accuser is African-American. The attorneys’ objectivity is called into question – Jack is white, while Henry and Susan are black. And while the legal team keeps referring to the client as “innocent,” their strategy is to turn the jury into an audience; telling a story plausible enough to instill reasonable doubt, leading to a verdict of “not guilty.” It’s as if Mamet would codify the lawyers’ pledge as, “to tell the truth, the half-truth and nothing but the half-truth so hope to God my half-truth is more compelling the opposing counsel’s.”
This production hit some rough patches on its road to the stage – see the link below – and has not yet found its footing. In the old tradition of “the show must go on,” Bennett stepped into the pivotal role of Jack Lawson on opening night. Despite a yeoman effort to handle the torrent of dialogue the part entails, he is, as of this writing, still “on book” and carries the script with him. The ensemble fails to gel, and a wealth of sub-plot is unexplored by the entire cast.
It is worth noting that “Race” is yet another satisfying example of a strong artistic vision seamlessly rendered by the designers. Jennifer Maiseloff’s scenic design, representing the law office, employs strong horizontal lines, giving a remarkable spaciousness to the playing area. Her muted palette is echoed in Mary Copenhagen’s costumes. Add the stark lighting by Michael Beyer and we have a remarkable metaphor for the playwright’s view of the legal profession – there are no blacks or whites, merely shades of grey.
Director Christopher Bremer and his cast have not yet triumphed over adversity. There’s potential here, and “Race” might shine later in its run.
The Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company at Aaron DeRoy Theatre at the Jewish Community Center, 6600 W. Maple Rd., West Bloomfield, Thursday, Saturday & Sunday through Feb. 19, plus Wednesday, Feb. 15. $36-$43. 248-788-2900. http://www.jettheatre.org
John Monaghan’s story in the Feb. 3 issue of the Detroit Free Press: Actor Steve Blackwood quits JET’s ‘Race’ over artistic differences http://www.freep.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2012202030311