David Mamet is as much a brand name to modern dramas as Andrew Lloyd Webber is to the musical. Mamet’s trademark is his dialogue – fast, precise, repetitive, edgy and profanity-laden – so much so that the style has earned its own term – “Mamet Speak”. He writes roles that actors long to play and plays that - because of their quality, name recognition value and the plethora of actors stepping over each other wanting to do them - companies like to produce. Which brings us to Race, a fairly recent Mamet piece (2009) now running at Santa Rosa’s Left Edge Theatre.
Charles Strickland (Chris Ginesi) is a rich, white guy who has come to the office of attorneys Jack Lawson (Mike Pavone) and Henry Brown (Dorian Lockett) seeking representation. He has been accused of the rape of an African-American woman. Lawson, the senior partner (who’s white) is intrigued by the case. His partner Brown (who’s African-American) wants nothing to do with it. Their debate becomes moot when young, black female associate Susan (no surname, played by Jazmine Pierce), believing she’s following the senior partner’s direction, ends up having the firm become the lawyers of record. The debate moves from whether to take the case or not to how to win it. To get any further into the plot details would betray an audience’s opportunity to take the journey through all its twist and turns for themselves, and there are some doozies - maybe too many.
What I will say is that by the time the Carl Jordan-directed production was over, I felt more like I had been harangued than intellectually challenged, enlightened or engaged. As fully fleshed-out as the characters in other Mamet plays like American Buffalo or Glengarry Glen Ross seem to be, you’ll find the reverse in Race. ‘Shallow’ is the term to best describe them all. Never have characters in a Mamet play felt more like empty, dialogue-spewing vessels. Granted, the dialogue is painfully blunt, often crackling and bitterly funny but it frequently comes off as a checklist of points-to-be-made via an extremely contrived situation rather than a reality being genuinely addressed. This shallowness is most problematic with the character of Susan.
One of the criticisms often lobbed at Mamet is that he can’t write female characters and that when he does they’re simple plot devices. Mamet plays right into that criticism with Susan who, despite the preceding 75 minutes leading you to believe the contrary, turns out to be the pivotal character. I didn’t buy into the character for a second and it’s not the fault of Ms. Pierce. The playwright gave her little with which to work.
The same shallowness applies with varying degrees to the other characters. The actors all do well with what they’re given, and there are flashes of Mamet’s brilliance, but more often than not seem to be there merely to spout Mamet’s dialogue rather to inhabit a character. I did find the actors physical work most interesting. Pavone’s physical dominance as the senior partner gives way to unease as the situation mushrooms. Lockett is always a force on stage, both vocally and physically, and is here with his work as the one who sees things clearest from the get-go. Ginesi’s work as the defendant is at its best when he’s actually saying nothing. His physical manifestations of the internal struggle with his actions are nuanced enough to never give away the answer to the question of his guilt or innocence, but enough to make you wonder.
At an early point in the piece, Mamet has Henry ask Charles a rhetorical question: “What can a white man tell a black man about race?” Charles answers anyway: “Nothing.”
Mamet ignores that and proceeds to give us 90 minutes of not only his views on race but also his take on sexism, class privilege, affirmative action, the justice system and the press and pretty much ends up indicting everyone - white America, black America, male, female. There is no honor (or honesty) to be found anywhere in Mamet’s world.
Race comes off more as a Mamet manifesto than a play.
Presented by Left Edge Theatre
through March 26
Fri/Sat @ 8pm, Sun @ 2pm
Left Edge Studio Theatre
Luther Burbank Center for the Arts
50 Mark West Springs Rd
Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Photos courtesy of Left Edge Theatre