The figurative sparks fly within the sparse law office of Jack Lawson (R. Ward Duffy) and Henry Brown (Avery Glymph). Charles Strickland, a white and wealthy businessman, has arrived to ask for representation because he has been charged for raping a black woman. He claims to be innocent but does explain that he and the woman previously had consensual sex. Susan (Taneisha Duggan) is an associate at the law firm. She is African-American and reserved during the first forty-five minutes of the production. After intermission, she is forthright with her opinions and, in fact, her proactive input is key.
Henry, the firm's black lawyer, is smart, sarcastic, and pointed with his remarks. A sinewy man, he defines, through precise historical reference, what it means to be black in America. Jack, initially cynical, goes right after Charles (whose role is small but whose import is large). Ultimately, Jack (a white man) is more giving than Henry. Neither of the lead lawyers really wishes to have this case. Clearly, they are stuck with it.
Objects? A sequined red dress becomes pivotal as the plot unfolds.
Mamet hits hard with Race by asking provocative questions and deliberately avoiding answers. Charles, early on, is blunt: "I am the victim of false accusation!" By the time the first portion of the play abruptly sends observers out to drink, ponder, converse or just there, it's up to us to contemplate whether the play is about (primarily) race, sex or both.
In-your-face theater, with few if any wasted moments, Race, brings to mind, in some respects, Mamet's earlier Oleanna. Both of these plays are in attack mode and each is disturbing. Mamet's characters often speak in clipped phrases which are well-crafted.
Susan, by the way, stands around for a while during the beginning of the play, and one might assume that she is, say, an administrative assistant. Just before the final curtain, it is she who advises all about white people. Mamet zeroes in upon Susan and layers her as her perception and candor become more and more evident.
The play presses acutely forward as the characters verbally smack one another and the intensity amplifies. Beyond the obvious, it would be legitimate to argue that Mamet is also investigating guilt, religion, honesty and morality. Mamet's purpose is not to tie various strands together, box this metaphorical package, and send theatergoers away with resolution. Rather, the writer pushes his audience to consider the implications. The attorneys really do not wish to deal with the impossible circumstances of the current case but there isn't any choice. Whether or not Charles is guilty, it is their job is to win the case.
The cast is excellent, and Glymph's portrayal of Henry is particularly compelling. Tazewell Thompson assists with fine direction. A black man, he probably has his own personal feelings about this Mamet playand this multi-racial law firm. The playwright creates the tension and impact by hooking everyone almost the moment this play begins. Did Charles do it? Can he survive the accusation? Will Susan become a significant player? Can Jack and Henry agree? Thompson, correctly, accelerates the pace of the production. Mamet does not give in but hurls his questions toward anyone watching his play.
Race continues at Hartford's TheaterWorks through July 10th. For tickets call (860) 527-7838 or visit www.theaterworkshartford.org.
- Fred Sokol