There is a lot to like about Race its dialogue is fast and exhilarating, it keeps you on edge, and it makes you think. But there is just as much to dislike about Goodman Theatre’s premiere of David Mamet’s latest work — and it might outweigh the likeable elements.
The play seems to have a simple plot; the old, rich, white Charles Strickland is accused of raping a young black woman in a red, sequined dress. Because he is the powerful one accused of attacking someone less powerful, public opinion has already found him guilty. After other attorneys refuse to defend him because of his perception of guilt, he visits Henry and Jack’s firm to beg them to take his case. Jack is white, Henry is black, and their newest associate, Susan, is also black. Through Susan’s error, they end up taking the difficult case.
Or is it an error? There are plot twists and turns throughout each of the two acts, and the pace is fast. The partners’ determination to win unwraps onion layers of each character’s attitude toward each other and themselves. At the beginning of the play, Susan says she thinks Strickland “looks like a guilty man” and that she “knows” he is guilty — and it’s easy to believe at that point that the powerful man harmed the less powerful woman. As the show moves along, though, each player pushes the others to confront ugly opinions and behaviors, and the case becomes more confusing. Who is really on trial, Strickland or the attitudes of one race toward another?
Patrick Clear is a very convincing Strickland, sometimes stiff, sometimes bumbling and sometimes wounded. Geoffrey Owens gives his portrayal of Henry a strong dignity combined with resentment.
But the real sparks are seen when Marc Grapey (Jack) and Tamberla Perry (Susan) confront each other. Perry ices out Grapey when he throws a stupid pass at her, but fires up at the end when she tells him how she really feels. Grapey sneers convincingly at his young associate’s ignorance of trials, then crumbles later when she accuses him of racism.
Their performances aren’t enough to make this a great play, though: there was too much I couldn’t believe. If Henry didn’t want Susan to be hired, why would Jack hire her? They’re supposed to be equal partners in the practice. No real business partner would allow another to hire somebody if he objected.
And her actions didn’t resemble those of an actual lawyer. What good lawyer would try to sabotage their own firm’s case? Susan was probably the most unrealistic character in the play: she got hired even though she lied and one partner didn’t like her, she talked back to her boss and questioned his authority, she kept her job even after she made a huge mistake, and she freaked out over wearing a dress for the good of a case. (Even if she really felt weird about wearing the dress, what kept her from suggesting they hire an actress for the courtroom scene?) I got the feeling I was supposed to be thinking about race relations, but instead the oddness of the story had me thinking about its holes.
My other big problem was that the only two women in the plot were malevolent; Red Dress girl , who we never see, is falsely accusing Charles of raping her, and Susan reveals shady intentions. It seemed pretty anti-women; how come the male characters are both good and bad, but the female characters are all bad?
The play takes place entirely on Linda Buchannan’s office set, and it’s convincing as a law office. The lighting seemed harsh to me, but that also goes along well with the angry dialogue and theme. The costumes were unexciting, but they were believeable for lawyers. I did wish they would actually bring out the red, sequined dress, though, just to add interest.
Race has actors who are well cast, and Mamet give them some great, juicy and sometimes funny lines (Henry: “You think that every black man you meet hates you. Well…you’re right. He does.”) that go well with the fast pace. The production is enjoyable, and keeps the audience’s attention. But there is something that’s off. Race is an interesting combination of right and wrong; the topic is right, but the storytelling is wrong.