It’s Mamet, so nothing’s plain as black/white when Goodman taps the bitter humor of ‘Race’
By Lawrence B. Johnson
For a play as cynical about human nature, the workings of our justice system and not least the commonality of racism as David Mamet’s “Race” unequivocally is, the Goodman Theatre production so deftly directed by Chuck Smith is madly, almost unbearably funny.
One could cast a dour eye upon the very serious legal case at the center of “Race,” in which a wealthy middle-aged white man stands accused of raping a young black woman, and ask what could possibly be amusing. That answer is irony. Mamet’s play drips with edgy irony as two defense attorneys – one white, the other black – parse the details to find a way to get their client off. With surgical precision, Smith and his two seasoned, ruthless lawyers parse the irony. The result is a stagecraft tour de force.
Rich, high-profile businessman Charles Strickland (played with carefully measured naiveté by Patrick Clear) comes to attorneys Jack Lawson (Marc Grapey), who is white, and his junior partner Henry Brown (Geoffrey Owens), who is black, in desperate need of representation against rape charges. Strickland insists he is innocent. Yes, he knew the girl. Yes, he had sex with her. But it was consensual and besides he loves her. He’s also married, but never mind that.
From these ingredients and one more – the peripheral, it seems almost incidental presence of a young black female assistant in the law office – Mamet brews a bitter concoction of self-interestedness, duplicity, manipulation, mistrust and ingrained antipathy between black people and white people. I’m probably leaving something out, but if it adds to the general picture of human beings acting badly toward each other, you can surely add that to the mix as well.
Grapey’s white alpha lawyer and Owens’ savvy black partner give the impression of competent attorneys, in a go-for-the-jugular manner of speaking, but they are a great comedy team. Without ever specifically creating a gag, they spin lines with perfect dead-pan timing to turn the most solemn moments painfully funny. Such instances fall like raindrops on the Goodman stage, and I’m not talking about the gentle bath of mercy. These flinty barristers don’t know from mercy.
The white lawyer Lawson is a master of logic, a guy with a flair for connecting the dots when others might not even see dots to connect. He’s three steps ahead, and he knows people. White people, black people, it doesn’t matter. He knows he can size them up. Grapey gives Lawson an expansive confidence seasoned with a terse, non-nonsense directness. He’s unassailable, or so he thinks.
Owens’ black lawyer Brown shares his white partner’s toughness and quickness. Yet he surveys the world – and the case at hand – with the insight of a man from a background that Lawson can only imperfectly imagine. More than once, the client’s naïve or simply presumptuous comments about blacks, and how they might feel in certain situations, elicit open-mouth, stopped-breath silence from Owens that leaves the audience roaring with laughter at what is too obvious to require speech.
But of course the situation is very serious. A woman may have been raped. Lest we lose sight of what’s at stake, Mamet provides a constant reminder in the sounding-board persona of the office assistant Susan. She is a black woman. Does she think the client is guilty? Her relationships differ with the white attorney who hired her – over his partner’s objections – and the black man who believes he sees in her something lost on the other lawyer.
Nothing humorous touches Susan, played by Tamberla Perry with a gray neutrality and severity that matches her below-the-knee skirt. And yet this clear-eyed assistant is also a person with her own flaws, her own prejudices, perhaps her own agenda. When the cup of irony is nearly drained, it’s the incidental assistant’s turn to smirk. By then, no one is laughing.
If Chuck Smith’s direction strikes to the heart of Mamet’s irony, designer Linda Buchanan’s sturdy law-office set consolidates the play’s paradox. We behold a bulwark. Stick around.
- David Mamet wrote an essay about the themes of “Race” at the beginning of the 2009-2010 season: Read it at NYTimes.com
- Director Chuck Smith talks about putting “Race” together: Watch Goodman’s video clip
- Performance location, dates and times: Go to TheatreinChicago.com
Captions and photo credits: Homepage and top: Susan (Tamberla Perry), Henry Brown (Geoffrey Owens) and Jack Lawson (Marc Grapey) put Charles Strickland (Patrick Clear) in the hot seat in the Chicago premiere of David Mamet’s “Race.” Upper right: Charles Strickland (Patrick Clear) protests his innocence. Upper left: Henry Brown (Geoffrey Owens) phones for more information about the rape case. Lower left: Susan (Tamberla Perry) points out a critical detail to her employer Jack Lawson (Marc Grapey). Below: Jack Lawson (Marc Grapey) mulls the emerging strategy of Charles Strickland’s case. (Photos by Erik Y. Exit)