There are two juicy targets in David Mamet’s play Race, currently playing in a fine production at Jobsite Theater (originally scheduled through May 27 and now extended through June 3).
The first is, of course, race itself: the American tendency to first consider skin color when judging a stranger, a colleague, or a legal case.
The second is law, or more specifically, the American trial system, seen by Mamet as a competition between two aforementioned opposing fictions, with truth quite irrelevant and anyway impossible to determine.
Put these two tortuously complicated subjects together, add humor and a good plot, and the result is a postmodern, stimulating dramatic riff whose only flaw is that it’s too short.
I had doubts about Mamet’s work after the glorified sitcom November, but Race shows the master on his best behavior again: shocking, obscene, but all in the service of a true vision. If you follow the play attentively, you’ll find yourself on one wild, at times thrilling ride.
The play is about Charles, a wealthy white man who’s accused of raping an African-American woman in a hotel room. He says the sex was consensual; she says differently. Deciding whether or not to take the case are partners Jack, a cynical white attorney, and Henry, his black colleague who still has a few things to teach his buddy about race relations. Helping out — when she’s not making rookie mistakes — is new assistant Susan, a black woman with a degree from an Ivy League college and a healthy suspicion about the men who treat her like a temp secretary (yes, there’s a bit of Speed-the-Plow here). The partners are reluctant to represent Charles because a win would, they fear, make them look racist, whereas a loss would only make them look incompetent. Also, the client’s a problem: while insisting on his innocence, he feels sympathy for the victim, and has a dangerous impulse to tell his sob story to the press. Keeping Charles in line, doing damage control on Susan’s missteps, and trying to predict what storyline will move a jury to acquit, Jack and Henry face a huge challenge. In 21st century America, race is still such a volatile issue, even expert technicians like these attorneys can’t be entirely sure of anything.
Paul J. Potenza as Jack is splendidly persuasive. This is a lawyer with Nitzschean credentials, living in a world where there are no facts, only interpretations, and where reality is only the last fiction standing. Worrying and plotting like a chess master trying to see twelve moves into the future, absorbing unpromising information like a prizefighter taking yet another blow, Potenza’s Jack is desperate and ruthless and yet still vulnerable.
As his partner Henry, ranney is not quite as understandable. Henry is the quieter partner, the one who’s not so viscerally reactive to new data, but as ranney plays him, it’s hard to determine the meaning of his reticence. Is he inured to American racism or simply a phlegmatic personality? Is he an operator like Jack or calmly wise and detached? Tia Jemison plays Susan with admirable brio, though, appearing submissive to her new bosses as a new hire has to be, but then making a stand when she feels herself exploited. And Ned Averill-Snell as defendant Charles is wonderfully credible, coming across as gentle and self-doubting without ever seeming incapable of the crime of which he’s accused. Averill-Snell used to be a frequent presence on bay area stages; here’s hoping that he’s back for many shows to come.
David Jenkins directs tautly, favoring speed over reflection, and Brian Smallheer’s attractive set, of a modern conference room featuring abstract paintings, could hardly be better. All the characters are dressed for business by the sure-handed Katrina Stevenson.
I’ve said that Race bears some resemblance to Speed-the-Plow; but even more, it reminds me of Mamet’s Oleanna. In that play, a man’s career depends on which of two realities is the accurate one; similarly, in Race, all depends on an interpretation. But this time Mamet goes further: he suggests that there is no reality, that even the accused rapist can’t be sure whether a crime took place. In such a case, and with these racial elements, who can claim to see clearly? The question is urgent — and it’s a pleasure watching it investigated by the canny David Mamet.