David Mamet displays his fearless streak once more in the incendiary play "Race," playing through November 4 at the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown.
Early on, Mamet defines the core thesis of the play with a simple question and answer. What can a Caucasian say about race to an African-American?
"Nothing," the response comes.
Therein lay labyrinths of problem, and possibility. The issue of race so overshadows everything it touches that nothing else seems to measure up against it. In the case of accused white rapist Charles Strickland (Patrick Shea), the largest of the many criminal implications of his alleged assault on a black woman has little to do with sexual aggression, and everything to do with what legal assistant Susan (Miranda Craigwell) calls "racial impropriety."
A series of blunders on Susan’s part locks the firm into the role of Strickland’s legal counsel before its unwilling partners have even decided whether they are interested in the case. It’s a potentially costly and reputation-damaging case, no matter what the verdict may be; even a courtroom victory might play poorly in the community at large: "Amortize that over years of lost clientele!" one partner cries.
No matter what one says about race, it’s only going to be the tip of an iceberg. For Mamet, whose style is something like taking a roundabout at top speed -- with phrases and fragmentary sentences and single words repeated, mantra-like, as the characters struggle to find a way out of their shuddering loops of thought -- the key lies with defining a handful of directly relevant (though not directly adjacent) aspects of the issue, and hammering at them.
The New Repertory Theatre’s production benefits, here, from four sublime performances. Shea radiates equal parts self-loathing and seething anger; Craigwell has an air that’s at once imperious and aggrieved, though she’ll be damned if she’ll admit to the latter. Ken Cheeseman and Cliff Odle round out the cast as, respectively, the firm’s white partner, Jack, and its black partner, Henry. Theirs is a smoothly functional relationship, but each actor homes in with razor-sharp instincts on just where the fault lines lay... not to mention the carefully buried irritations and, yes, prejudices with which each regards the other.
Those prejudices are not long in clawing their way to the surface. Susan decides at first glance that Strickland is guilty; she also decides that she doesn’t like him. This shouldn’t matter, and to more seasoned professionals like Henry and Jack, it might not. But it’s not all a matter of how to mount the best, or most entertaining, case in a court of law; even the most experienced, or jaded, attorney is still a human being underneath and, when it comes to lawyers, the human animal lying in wait is probably of the biting sort.
This means that even in the realm of strategy and abstraction, the primal issue of race tends to boil over. Henry and Susan view the issue of race as divergently as do Henry and Jack; it’s telling that of the various tête-à-têtes that the play finds occasion to place before us, Henry and Susan don’t have a private blowup. It’s a little disappointing; perhaps even Mamet has his limits, but it would have added some extra kick.
But white guilt? The tricky no-man’s-land of interracial communication? Mamet plumbs the very depths of these topics. While the lawyers strip the layers off Strickland, getting closer to the source of his qualms and his shame, Mamet peels layer after layer off of the complicated questions of guilt, rage, resentment, and power that super-charge the issues of skin color and prejudice. When Jack and Henry are alone on stage, they engage in the kind of no-holds-barred dialogue that feels like a debridement of rotted flesh from a wound. When Jack confronts Susan in private (or Susan confronts Jack; their relationship is fraught with unspoken sexual tension), there’s a similar effect.
Strickland vacillates throughout between episodes of outraged indignation at the accusation of rape, and burning, palpable shame at what he sees as his failures. "I gave her my word," he mumbles, but what word was that? As Jack and Henry pick at him, a familiar picture emerges of a successful and wealthy man hitting a mid-life wall, paying for sex, and then finding himself caught up in a bewildering web of choices and motives. But is this the truth of the matter? Or is it simply the portrait that the attorneys know will have a chance of swaying the jury, a jury that will walk into the courtroom carrying a presumption of guilt?
This play is one of those fiery, frigidly precise Mamet gems endowed with such momentum that an intermission isn’t needed (and would even be a mistake). The dialogue snaps with whip-like intensity; director Robert Walsh underscores this quality in the way he transitions between scenes, with the lights cutting off and the vertical blinds on the office windows snapping shut with a kind of angry briskness. (This is but the most dramatic effect in lighting designer Scott Pinkney’s otherwise subtle repertoire.)
There’s only one set in this four-person play, and that’s all that’s needed. Scenic designer Janie E. Howland has created a space that projects ruthless professionalism but contains enough character that it’s not boring. Costumer Charles Schoonmaker trusses Susan up in a formidably stiff ensemble, suited to her temperament; Jack’s oxblood shirt and charcoal suit speaks to the margin of laxness his socially privileged white guy enjoys, while Henry remains clad in an impeccable blue shirt with a dark grey suit that’s nice, but not quite as nice as Jack’s. The overwhelmed Strickland, coming unsprung, has a slightly harried and rumpled aspect; he’s got the shirt and tie, but he’s lost his suit jacket somewhere along the way.
When we talk about race, what are we really saying? That we don’t trust one another? Or that we’re not even sure we trust ourselves? Mamet is hardly a timid playwright; in his hands, the charged topic of race retains its shock value, but also takes on a kind of cathartic, therapeutic significance. Think of it as radical shock therapy for our enraged, but paralyzed, body politic.
"Race" continues through Nov. 4 at the Charles Mosesian Theater at the Arsenal Canter for the Arts, located at 321 Arsenal Street in Watertown.
Tickets cost $28 - $58. Students, seniors, and groups receive discounted rates. Tickets are available online at http://newrep.org/race.php or via phone at 617-923-8487.
Performance schedule: Thursday nights at 7:30; Friday and Saturday nights at 8:00 p.m.; Sundays at 2:00 p.m. There will also be a Thursday matinee at 2:00 p.m. on Oct. 18 and a Wednesday night performance at 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 24.