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article imageReview: David Mamet's frank but unsatisfying 'Race' premieres in Toronto Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Apr 12, 2013 in Entertainment
Toronto - If David Mamet's “Race” were a musical, its big closing number would probably be “Everyone's a Little Bit Racist” from “Avenue Q”. It's a shame Mamet's play never quite reaches that tune's level of insight into humanity's tribal tendencies.
Race, which had its Toronto premiere last night in a new Canadian Stage production, is a play that just aches to provoke and shock, with its cynical perceptions of bigotry in twenty-first-century America. Blacks hate whites, whites don't trust blacks, women don't trust men, the poor loathe the rich, the privileged look down on immigrants. And we all shamelessly exploit everybody else's prejudices against us in some way. There are times when Mamet's script sounds like little more than a thinly disguised critique of Affirmative Action laws.
Not that these themes or perspectives aren't worth exploring in drama – if the drama has bite and power to it. Director Daniel Brooks makes an honourable effort to imbue this material with passion and righteous anger, and there are some gripping moments, even a few funny ones. But Mamet often sacrifices character and story in favour of talky rhetoric, and much of his dry dialogue lacks the tough-talking spontaneity and realism for which he's so revered. (Fans of the famous Mamet Dammit may be pleased to hear that the c-word is uttered a few times, though quoted from a postcard.)
Race stars Jason Priestley (of Beverly Hills, 90210 fame) and Nigel Shawn Williams as Jack Lawson and Henry Brown, law-firm partners who find themselves stuck defending a rich Caucasian, Charles Strickland (Matthew Edison), accused of raping a young African American woman.
It's clear from the start that Strickland expects perceived racism to be a factor in the case and chooses the firm because of its mixed racial makeup; Lawson is white, Brown is black. The attorneys see through the scheme immediately, but still try to manipulate race to the case's advantage when considering the jury's likely biases. (When Strickland appeals to phony political correctness by saying, “We are all brothers beneath the skin,” Brown snaps: “I don't think we're brothers beneath the skin, over the skin, or in any way associated with the skin.”)
Brown and Lawson come to believe Strickland is innocent of the charges, despite evidence of his unsavoury character. But things heat up when their young, African American legal assistant, Susan (Cara Ricketts) – who thinks Strickland guilty – gets involved in the discussions. As racially motivated divisions and assumptions become the focus of the conversation, they also turn out to play a big part in Susan's relationship with her employers. Reminiscent of Karen in Speed-the-Plow, but slightly better developed, Susan may not quite be the innocent outsider she appears to be.
“There is nothing a white person can say to a black person about race which is not both incorrect and offensive,” Lawson acknowledges to Susan as she confronts him about his secret investigation into her past – expressing Mamet's concerns about PC thinking and the way it treats language as a weapon. At another point, Susan asks Lawton: “You think black people are stupid?” His glib response: “I think all people are stupid. I don't think blacks are exempt.”
Priestley may have the star power of this production, but it's really Williams who owns it. A multiple Dora Award-winner with plentiful Stratford and Shaw Festival experience, Williams plays Brown with authority, jaded intelligence and professional confidence; he's the one who commands your attention when he's onstage. Ricketts also stands out as Susan, exuding skepticism and restrained passion during the scenes in which she grills Lawson on his attitudes towards her. You could argue that Williams and Ricketts succeed in putting far more dimension into their characters than Mamet may have intended.
Edison gives Strickland a measure of humourless entitlement, with outbursts of whiny rage that make you hate the character even when you think he's innocent. Meanwhile, Priestley's goateed yuppie shark has some strong moments, but soon comes off as monotonous and one-note in comparison to Williams' powerful dynamics and presence.
What undermines the play more than anything else is its lack of final payoff. Tensions boil all the way through the characters' interactions, and Brooks puts in a lot of hints of simmering rage under the surface, as actors slam tables and chairs in frustration while talking. But there's never any release – none of the shocking acts of violence or life-ruining consequences that defined the endings of plays like Oleanna and Glengarry Glen Ross. There are startling revelations as the case develops, but you're left with a limp, anticlimactic ending that even seems to contradict Mamet's points about ingrained prejudicial beliefs (as one character's prejudices appear to be justified).
Mamet insists on simple, unadorned productions for his work, and Debra Hanson's blunt set is a literal reflection of the racial colours that invoke discussion in the play. At stage centre is long boardroom table with white chairs, with white boxes at the back, in front of a large grey wall; the left and right sides, including Susan's desk area, are dominated by black filing cabinets and black furniture. There's also, inexplicably, a poster of Muhammad Ali leaning against the back wall; maybe it's a symbol of the inherent conflict?
CanStage's recent production of Melissa James Gibson's THIS was, I thought, a flawed production of a good play. Race is a good production of a very flawed play. Brooks tries hard to give life and rhythm to this text, but can't save it from its own unsatisfying hollowness. Mamet promises controversy here and delivers empty debate instead. I'm not sure Mamet even knows what he wants to say. Whatever it is, it's certainly not going to bring the races together.
More about Theatre, Drama, david mamet, canadian stage, canstage
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