It’s been a busy theater-going week for the Tatler. Watched rehearsal for Good Person of Sezuan on Monday, saw Race on Wednesday, was at rehearsal for the upcoming Jacques Brel piece on Thursday, opening of Camino on Friday, and Midnight Radio on Saturday. And Tuesday night was spent singing with the Bach Choir. So here it is, Sunday morning, and the Tatler’s finally got a chance to pen her review, with apologies to the good folks at PICT for taking so long to get this out.
I’m not sure what I think about David Mamet’s work anymore. I teach Oleanna nearly every year, and I think it’s in many ways a masterful bit of writing; ditto Glengarry Glen Ross (which I haven’t included on a syllabus in years). Those two plays hold the same kind of fascination as an awful car wreck (do I need to elaborate on that)? But ever since Mamet “came out” as a conservative a few years ago, it’s been more and more difficult to give his work the benefit of the doubt; for example, where I used to see the potential for ambiguity in how the actions and motivations of Oleanna’s Carol might be understood, now I find it more difficult to defend Mamet against the charges of misogyny students bring against him. That is, in retrospect, given Mamet’s cranky repudiation of things progressive because of his dismay at the culture wars, I’m more inclined to read his vicious portrait of the radical feminist Carol as early turf-defending. I’ll still teach the play; I may not defend the playwright as vigorously, though.
With Race Mamet wants to be equally incendiary about the sensitive issue of race relations, and he seems to believe that his play will provoke strong reactions in his audience. Before the play began we were told that Mamet’s contract stipulates that a theater may not hold any kind of audience talkback for at least two hours after a performance, presumably to give us a chance to chew on what we saw and come back with more fully-staked out positions — (?) Whatever the reason, it backfires: two hours after I saw Race my mind had blissfully moved on to other concerns, and now, four days later, I’m hard-pressed to think much at all about the issues the play presented. It’s not so much that the issues themselves are inconsequential or irrelevant — on the contrary, I think the subject of race is as charged as ever, and as much as I disagree with some of Mamet’s politics, I also think that his exposé of liberal pieties when it comes to thinking about race is a good thing. Liberals tend to be pretty good at self-critique and self-doubt, and I suspect many would admit to the ideological uncertainty, bordering on hypocrisy, that Mamet’s play accuses them of possessing.
The problem here is that the play is awfully lightweight, and doesn’t do a whole lot to move us out of our comfort zone or make us angry. The story takes place in a lawyer’s office; the partners, Jack (John DeMita), who is white, and Henry (Alan Bomar Jones), who is black, take on the near-impossible case of defending the rather clueless, extremely rich Charles (played by Michael Fuller) against accusations of raping a black woman in a hotel room. The fourth player in this conflict is Susan (Casiha Felt), a young black lawyer who has been hired by Jack against Henry’s better judgment. We’re told in the opening moments of the play that white people can’t say anything about race (which may be Mamet’s confession of his own inadequacy to the task). From then on, as the revelation of Charles’s guilt or innocence unfolds in the background, the play foregrounds the dissection of both the white characters’ inability to treat blacks equitably from fear of being labeled racist, and the black characters’ manipulation of that fear to climb the social, economic, and political ladder.
The dual hypocrisy Mamet identifies here is undoubtedly worth thinking about and reflecting upon, particularly given popular claims that we’ve suddenly become a “post-racial” society with the election of Obama; but the play doesn’t sell this dissection in any kind of realistic way. In his single-minded focus on race as the primary divisive issue, Mamet downplays or ignores other factors that determine success and access to power in the real world — like class, wealth, age, and gender. For example, I don’t believe for a moment that, given the power differential between the young Susan and her boss Jack, she would confront him over the conditions of her hire; nor do I buy that Henry would treat one of the richest men in the country with the kind of utter contempt he aims at Charles. And (reminiscent of Oleanna, now that I think of it) Mamet loads the deck by making Charles — whose wealth has been inherited, not earned — the kind of super-entitled dimwit we’d love to see hoist on his own petard. The character whose actions spark the conflict of the play is utterly dismissable.
Given the flaws in the play itself, PICT’s production does its best to serve it: Andrew Paul’s direction is brisk and clean, set and costume designers Gianni Downs and Rachel Parent establish the slick professional air of an upscale law firm nicely, and the lighting and sound design (Allen Hahn and Erik Lawson) are excellent — in particular, the sound bites from past civil rights speeches and news events nicely put the play into a larger context. And Alan Bomar Jones stands out in the cast, bringing a force and intelligence and anger to the character of Henry that feels absolutely right for the character’s situation and status.