Judicial Review # 9: Pushing Hot Buttons — David Mamet’s “Race” @ New Rep
What is a Judicial Review? It is a fresh approach to creating a conversational, critical space about the arts and culture. This is our ninth session, a discussion about the New Repertory Theatre’s production of David Mamet’s play Race, which revolves around the frenzy and fury generated by three attorneys who are asked to defend a wealthy man accused of raping an African-American woman.
Race by David Mamet. Directed by Robert Walsh. Presented by New Repertory Theatre in the Charles Mosesian Theater, Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, MA, through November 4.
- Introduction by Bill Marx
- Review by Rahsaan D. Hall
- Review by Peter Adrian-Cohen
- Review by Karen Bluestone
- Summary by Bill Marx
Race opened on Broadway in 2009. For Mamet, “most contemporary debate on race is nothing but sanctimony — efforts at exploitation and efforts at restitution seeking, equally, to enlarge and prolong dissent and rancor.” In this comedy, he attempts to offer an alternative to this history of exploiting racial prejudice.
The set-up is simple enough. A very wealthy white man asks a trio of lawyers to defend him against the charge of raping a black woman. Two of the lawyers are black, the other white: the evidence against the man, along with his protestations of innocence yet quest for expiation, sets off a heated dialogue that includes an examination of the relativity of American justice, the embattled relationship between men and women and black and whites, and the omnipresence of shame in contemporary society.
In his chapter condemning “Politically Correct” in his 2010 book Theatre, Mamet argues that “drama is about lies. Drama is about repression. As that which is repressed is liberated — at the conclusion of the play — the power of repression is vanquished and the hero (the audience’s surrogate) is made more whole. Drama is about finding previously unsuspected meaning in chaos, about discovering the truth that has previously by lies, and about our persistence in accepting lies.” The question for this Judicial Review is whether, measured by his own standards, Mamet has discovered truth in this play — or simply added more lies.
So far, this Judicial Review features as judges Rahsaan D. Hall, Deputy Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, retired social worker (and theater lover) Karen Bluestone, and critic/dramatist Peter Adrian-Cohen. There will be more voices to come. Feel free to join the conversation!
At this point, the panelists are very positive about the play, both the script and the production. Rahsaan Hall writes that he was initially skeptical about the play, but concludes that Race “is different in that it’s not attempting to tell my story but rather our story. The story of how most Americans understand the way race influences our perspectives and understanding of certain events in life.” Adrian-Cohen finds Mamet to be a “master-builder” and believes that the reward of seeing the play is that “it robs you of whatever illusions you might still cling to that racism is not about YOU; it’s something OTHER PEOPLE do and are.”
Rahsaan Hall had some misgivings about “the play’s oversimplified attempt to present the complexities of the African American perspective on race relations, I sensed the intent behind the effort. These issues are never black and white.” And Karen Bluestone observes that “Mamet tries his best to sabotage [his characters] through his cynicism about the human spirit.”
— Bill Marx, Editor of The Arts Fuse
Rahsaan D. Hall
The Verdict on Race
“What say you ladies and gentlemen of the jury? Is the defendant Race guilty of challenging the audience to confront their own understanding of the complexities of racial dynamics in this country?” Before I answer that question, I must qualify that I am highly skeptical of any production that attempts to tell the story of people of color, particularly black people. But Race is different in that it’s not attempting to tell my story but rather our story. The story of how most Americans understand the way race influences our perspectives and understanding of certain events in life. David Mamet’s play invites us to explore the dynamics of racial assumptions when an African American lawyer has to defend a white man accused of raping an African American woman.
Right out of the gate, we are confronted with naked racial assumptions that frame the dire situation the potential client is faced with. The cast speeds through a dialogue that highlights the racially charged minefield they need to navigate to answer the core question of whether they will represent this potential client. In doing so, the two attorneys, one white and one African American, and their African American receptionist discover things about themselves and each other that touch those secret places many of us may be reluctant to discuss in mixed company but secretly believe or wonder about.
Holding aside some leaps in legal procedure and ethical obligations, the creation of the attorney client interaction played into the slick, conniving, blind ambition stereotypes frequently associated with lawyers that I find troubling. That being said, the “good cop – bad cop,” “black cop – white cop,” tag team effort to uncover the truth from this potential client uncovered some truths about the almost exclusively white audience. For instance, there were lines delivered that spoke deep truths about racial stereotypes, white privilege, and this notion of an unjustified hyper vigilance to issues of race, which evoked what I felt was nervous laughter. My sense was that those lines were intended to be provocative or insightful, as opposed to punch lines.
The context of the potential client’s dilemma seemed to have been taken out of the headlines as Tawana Brawley, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the Duke Lacrosse team, and even Trayvon Martin came to mind. But what is different is that we have the opportunity to be a fly on the wall during the deliberations that lead up to how the racial spin will be played out. Despite my own misgivings about the plays oversimplified attempt to present the complexities of the African American perspective on race relations, I sensed the intent behind the effort. These issues are never black and white. Given the standing ovation, which I interpreted as a collective sigh of relief that some deeply held beliefs, stereotypes, and assumptions have a place within the complexities of this nation’s racial narrative, I believe the jury found the defendant Guilty.
Rahsaan Hall is the Deputy Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice where he handles race and national origin discrimination complaints. His primary focus areas are voting rights and police misconduct. He also serves as the chair of the board of directors for the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, which is charged with funding legal services agencies in the Commonwealth. Prior to joining the Lawyers’ Committee Rahsaan served as an Assistant District Attorney for the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office where he handled drug, gang, and homicide cases. Rahsaan is also an ordained reverend in the African Methodist Episcopal church and is actively engaged with civil rights and social justice initiatives.
This evening of theater is hard work for the audience; but it’s also richly rewarding. It asks you, the audience, for 90 minutes of total concentration. Because if you start to drift, even for a moment, you are likely to miss a laugh, a well turned phrase, or a sudden twist of plot of which there are too many to recount.
As its title says, this play is about Race. Or is it? On the surface, it is about a wealthy, white bully, who has raped a black woman. Or has he? Or is it the other way around? Is she out to blackmail him for a share of his wealth?
Sound familiar? Remember Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (and a Frenchman to boot), who allegedly raped a chambermaid in New York. He maintained that, irrespective of their differences in social standing and race, the sex was consensual and that he paid for it. But the press wouldn’t go for that and shamed him. Alas, without any appreciable effect. As recently as a few days ago, the New York Times quoted Strauss-Kahn saying that he may have overdone the sex thing but “lust is no sin.”
Art imitating life? Actually, with this play it’s the other way around—life imitates art. David Mamet wrote Race two years BEFORE the Strauss-Kahn incident. As his list of successes proves, he has an extraordinary sense for what deserves scrutiny in our distracted time.
So this play is not about race after all; it’s about rape. Accordingly the dialogue turns to questions about the nature of law and justice. The play is set in a law office in a city that could be New York; the alleged rapist walks in and asks to be represented; he doesn’t ask, being the bully he is, he DEMANDS representation.
Mirroring the themes of the play, the law office the bully has walked into is run by two partners—one white, one black. In these two lawyers, the bully has met his match. The black lawyer has studied not just at law school but—so we infer from his language—in the school of Mean Streets. Similarly, the white lawyer has dealt with pretty much the worst human nature is known for; in addition to his law-degree, he holds a doctorate in incurable cynicism.
Trying to get to know their new client, the two lawyers discover him to be “lying to himself, his lawyers and ultimately to God Himself.” But fortunately for the alleged rapist, that does not make any difference. His lawyers are no more interested in the truth than he is; they too want to win the case. The law, they point out, has absolutely nothing to do with justice. And even less with reality. It’s about one thing only: the telling of entertaining stories.
As the plot keeps twisting, there is a new source of surprises: A young, black woman. She is a lawyer in this same law-office. In ways not entirely clear, she manipulates the case behind everyone’s back and fabricates HER version of what happened, bringing to the case her own conflicted experience with race, sex, and justice. Above all she brings a smoldering, barely controlled fury. Things, momentarily, get so out of hand that her employer, the white lawyer, is afraid that any minute now she is going sue him for race discrimination.
The audience gradually discovers that there is a distorted, insane logic to all this. Race, sex, and power are equal opportunity employers. ALL the characters in the play have been damaged by them. And while the audience may not walk away with anything they did not already know or, at least suspect, they experience race in a very real and, if you permit, entertaining way: not as easily definable things but as behaviors deeply ingrained in us all. In the end THAT is the reward of seeing this play: It robs you of whatever illusions you might still cling to that racism is not about YOU; it’s something OTHER PEOPLE do and are.
Race clearly is the work of a master-builder. And a masterful dialogue writer to boot. No energy is wasted. Each attack is followed by a repartee, each gesture by a countergesture. So much so that, at times, the four characters blur into one and, in their place, you see an evening-filling argument. But not to worry. The cast makes sure this doesn’t happen often—they are brilliant. Ken Cheeseman, as the white lawyer has the gift of speaking with the entire body: In moments of vulnerability his legs twist, his knees jerk. Cliff Odle, as the black lawyer, is just as strong a presence; his face becomes an intimidating mirror of everyone’s fears and, by turns, a hilarious mirror of their small triumphs. Miranda Craigwell, the young lawyer, starts out quietly—as her role requires—but gradually gives free rein to her fury. Patrick Shea, finally, plays the rapist and bully with such intensity that he makes you forget that this is “just” a play. Whenever I see acting this good, I feel the presence of a gifted director. Robert Walsh trusts the playwright and he obviously trusts his four actors. The result is convincing.
Race isn’t for sissies, but it is richly rewarding.
Peter Adrian-Cohen Playwright, entrepreneur, and journalist, Cohen holds degrees from Princeton and Harvard. It was at Harvard, at age 31, that he had his break-through with the non-fiction novel The Gospel According to the Harvard Business School; the book became a bestseller with the New York Times filling an entire page with excerpts. In May of 2009, a new play, To Pay the Price, received a full production Off Broadway.
Some of Cohen’s plays have been produced by prominent European theaters such as Schauspielhaus Zurich (in cooperation with Swiss National Radio); Kulturfabrik Kampnagel, Hamburg; Hackesches Hof Theater, Berlin; Theaterhaus Gessnerallee, Zurich and Theater Freiburg, Freiburg i.B., Germany. Among Cohen’s recent works are Only a Complete Disaster Can Save Us Now—the latter about the economy, a subject familiar to Cohen from his days at the Harvard Business School.
The playwright David Mamet makes a living out of being provocative, in and out of the theater, and expects, no demands, his audience to work very hard. One can argue that any attempt at stimulating a discussion about race in this country is better than no attempt. Engaging whites in this discussion means confronting shame, guilt and fear of one’s true character being exposed. Mamet’s play, Race, does just that, challenging one’s moral compass, creating conflict among the closest of friends, and leaving one unnerved.
The story is simple. A wealthy, white man is accused of raping a black woman and seeks legal representation from a law firm that will get him off and possibly absolve his soul. It plays as a who done it. And one can easily get caught up in the forensics of the storyline; did he/didn’t he, did she/didn’t she? But, in reality, it doesn’t really matter. It reminds me of the OJ verdict. You knew he was guilty but for some there was a perverse gratification in knowing that for once capitalism helped free a black man rather than incarcerate him. You see, truth doesn’t matter because everyone lies in one way or another.
Like all of Mamet’s productions, the characters drive the plot. Jack (Ken Cheeseman), the white attorney who always needs to be the smartest person in the room, Henry (Cliff Odle), the black attorney who seeks fame and fortune while knowing he is playing in an arena that is wrought with mine fields, Susan (Miranda Craigwell), the black law intern who by circumstance of her race, gender and powerless position at the firm, seeks to level the playing field, and, Charles (Patrick Shea), the alleged rapist who doesn’t know if he wants to play the victim or seek redemption.
Under the astute and thoughtful direction of Robert Walsh, with a set design by Janie E. Howland and lighting by Scott Pinkney that is as effectively subtle as the language is harsh, the actors rely entirely on Mamet’s words which they deliver with commitment and reverence to the poetry of his work. The ensemble cast play off each other well, a concerto in motion, and tries to bring some modicum of humanity to the characters that Mamet tries his best to sabotage through his cynicism about the human spirit.
Mamet never can be accused of knowing how to write women characters. The word misogynist gets bandied around when trying to figure out what makes Mamet tick. So it is no wonder that Ms. Craigwell has the more difficult task of breathing life into Susan. But she succeeds in maintaining Susan’s stoicism until the climax, when the underlying rage in the play explodes. I felt she was kind of a heroine, my husband was leaning toward a sociopath. There lies the rub. It also appears to be a little more than a coincidence that the other two women (invisible on stage but nonetheless pivotal) were the alleged victim of the rape who the lawyers plot to vilify and the hotel maid who, because she gives damning testimony, must be half-literate and illegal and must be “murdered” on the stand.
Mamet is actually quite clever. He uses his status and power of a revered playwright to deliver half truths, innuendo, archaic notions and uninformed generalizations, all seen through the lens of a wealthy, educated, white man. And yet, he denies his validity and culpability in the first scene with Henry and Charles. Henry: “Do you know what you can say? To a black man. On the Subject of race? Charles: Nothing.” Mamet then reminds us again later in the play just in case we missed his ironic calculation with Jack’s statement to Susan, “I know. There is nothing. A white person. Can say to a black person. About race. Which is not both incorrect and offensive.” It was probably a good decision by Spike Lee to pass on Mamet’s screenplay for Malcolm X.
I do believe that part of Mamet’s motivation in writing Race was to contribute to the dialogue about race and its natural partners of sex, power, and the legal system. In order for the New Rep to gain the rights to produce Mamet’s play, they had to agree not to have a talkback. Mamet apparently wanted the impact of his play not to be emotionally truncated by a structured discussion between the actors and their audience. He definitely succeeded as this play has stuck with me, forcing me to revisit my thinking, my feelings, and my fear that we will never be free of our racist roots.
The same week I saw Race, I attended a movie premiere of Cracking the Code: The System of Racial Inequity at the Strand Theater written and directed by Shakti Butler. The film discusses the internal (such as bias) and the external (such as institutional racism) forces that have lead to and continue to fuel racial inequity in our country. The audience was diverse, 18 to 80, equal parts black, white, cultural diversity, and advocates of anti-racism, both the war horses and the energetic youth. Ms. Butler interrupted her film on a couple of occasions in order to give the audience time to turn to their neighbor and talk about their experience, to have a talk about race. Two approaches, both with their own merit.
I applaud New Rep for producing this play and by so doing contradict Jack’s contention that “all people are stupid.” I also appreciate New Rep’s commitment to expanding the theater experience by cosponsoring with WGBH a panel of black scholars and playwrights to discuss with each other and with a New Rep audience their reaction to Mamet’s play. It is a theater experience that keeps giving.
Karen Bluestone is a retired social worker whose career focused on working with adolescents and their families. A theater lover, she recently took part in New Rep’s Page to Stage program for those interested in learning what it takes to develop a written script into a professional theatrical production.
Director Robert Walsh
Race is David Mamet’s closest approximation to Shakespeare I’ve yet seen. It is commonly held that Shakespeare’s characters say what they mean -different, possibly, from Chekhov who holds a premiere position for creating whole worlds of subtext. What would happen if we took them at their word? (Think Rashomon). Similar to Shakespeare, Race contains numerous aberrations, inconsistencies of time and, generally, inconclusive linear clues that might help us form a verdict. I’m fascinated by an overwhelming need to satisfy those urges over coping with one’s own culpability. The playwright really set out with one purpose which, I would offer, is being fully realized in this stream.
Given the sharp rightward turn of the playwright’s ideas — see the late Christopher Hitchens’ devastating NYT review of the cartoon conservative polemics in Mamet’s recent cultural critique The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture — it is tempting to see Race as the dramatization (softened around the edges for Broadway consumption) of a right-wing revenge fantasy. Blacks are biding their time, nursing grudges, making stealthy use of affirmative action, plotting for restitution because of real or perceived wrongs. There is little the playwright prattles on about in The Secret Knowledge, from the debilitating perniciousness of the welfare state to the righteousness of America as a Christian nation, that can’t be read on any outre right wing blog. The latter also detail deranged fears that African-Americans — particularly by voting in such number for Democrats — are out to even the score against genuine free market lovin’ white Americans.
Seen in this light, Race apes, in a racial context, the get-even feminist/sexual mechanics of Oleanna: an act of smug liberal good will is rewarded with betrayal. In the former play, the wealthy white man accused of raping a black women regrets his action: he wants to do the right Christian thing and confess, to seek purification. (So much for comparing this conflicted character with the arrogant, self-proclaimed “libertine” Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who sees criticism of his “exclusive orgies” at $13,000 a pop as misguided attempts to “criminalize lust.”)
The accused man, brought low through self-abnegation, escapes, but the three lawyers who consider defending him — two black, one white — are caught in a Mamet rat trap, a jerry-rigged Hobbisan vision of the world that has narrowed into a slit over the years since American Buffalo, perhaps to accommodate increasingly paranoid cynicism. Life is nasty, brutal, and fear-filled — someone, somewhere, perhaps for the ‘best’ of reasons, plans to stab you in the back. The ‘tragic’ truth for Mamet is that lunk-headed, self-congratulatory liberals see themselves as saviors, but in truth they are (or may be) targets of the very irrational hatred that they condemn. Is this really all that provocative for today’s audiences? Anyone who checks out Glenn Beck’s infotainment empire (or watches Fox News) knows the drill already.
Mamet rightly rejects soft-minded left wing group think, but then embraces robotic conservative group think. The way out of this blind alley, at least in terms of the theater, is for a dramatist to present with equal strength all sides of a powerful conflict. Set one ‘right’ perspective against another. George Bernard Shaw advises, sensibly, that dramatists give the characters that they most disagree with the best lines. In Race, Mamet creates the kind of lop-sided, martyred outcome his ideology demands. (Does any major playwright create characters who are more predictable?) Does the play generate the kind of meaningful dialogue about race and affirmative action that Mamet asks for in a piece published in the NYT? Or does it only reinforce stereotypes and enmity? The New Rep production provides plenty of frisky entertainment, but for me there is nothing new or daring here.
David Mamet’s Race is quite an experience. The play follows the tradition of John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt and Mamet’s own Oleanna; plays where the answers to did he/didn’t he, should she/shouldn’t she are not given at all. Like these plays, the second act of Race is the conversation in the lobby, where the debates take place. In New Rep’s contract to produce Race, we aren’t allowed to host any talk-backs because Mamet doesn’t want this show to be “explained” by a dramaturg or other representative of the theatre. It’s meant to just hit you.
So here’s how it hit me:
I think the accused man, Charles Strickland, is guilty of raping the younger woman. I am a young woman and a feminist so I tend to believe rape victims. The myth that a woman will cry rape after any sexual encounter which she later regrets is offensive and damaging. That being said, I couldn’t hate the character of Strickland, because of the way Mamet wrote the role as well as how effectively the actor portrayed the breakdown of this man. He has had sex with the woman before, and he claims to really care about her, even though we later learn that he had been paying her in some form. What I think could have plausibly happened is that she, for whatever reason, was resistant to having sex on that particular night, but he either didn’t understand that or thought that he could persuade her. The fact that they had had sexual relations before, that she had accepted gifts (sometime of cash) from him, that she had agreed to meet him in a hotel room knowing the circumstances, was all taken by the accused as consent for sex. The “no” she might have given in the moment was drowned out by the “yes” echoing in his head. Of course, though this is a possible explanation, it is not an excuse, because she had the right to withdraw her consent to sex at any point in the encounter.
Strickland is not used to hearing “no.” As a wealthy, white, heterosexual American man, there is no privilege he has not been given. The woman, who is a poor black female, had probably finally had enough of being taken advantage of and reported the rape.
Where this play succeeds for me is in its portrayal of a man who finally recognizes his privilege. The poignancy of his character comes from watching him slowly gain an understanding of his action, and of how he has hurt people because of it. There is a moment, after realizing how badly he used to act with his black college roommate, where he softly, simply states, “My friend hated me.” To put it in terms of tragedy, this was his recognition and reversal. He finally recognized the fatal flaw within himself, and appears to be on his way to reversing his behavior and attitudes in the future. This moment was met in the theatre with an audible sigh of compassion of the audience for him. I think that for some, maybe, there was a small sting of conscience as well.
The biggest shortcoming of this play is the character of Susan. In this Judicial Review, the first judge referred to her as a receptionist and the second judge called her a lawyer. This discrepancy speaks volumes. I’ll admit, I was unclear as to what her official position was in the office. There are many references to her Ivy League education and law degree, so I don’t think she was just there as a secretary. At the same time, she was clearly on a lower rank than the two partners, and she often performed administrative tasks, such as making phone calls and giving out paperwork. (She was also instructed by her bosses to flirt with the client, a clear breach of workplace decorum.) Being unfamiliar with the workings of a law firm, I don’t know what this makes her. A junior or associate, perhaps?
I think the failure to clarify her position is an oversight on Mamet’s part. She is also the only character without a last name, and I cannot come up with any reason why that should be. These things may seem small, but they add up to her not being as fully developed as the other characters; not as clearly thought-through. Though all the characters are, in some ways, archetypes rather than fully-fleshed people, she is the most thinly drawn. It is unfortunate in a play that seeks to illuminate prejudices and stereotypes that the only female is a lesser character than her male counterparts. That being said, Miranda Craigwell gives a terrific performance, allowing Susan’s repressed anger and resentment to simmer just below the surface through most of the play before letting it burst satisfactorily out at the end.
Overall, Race is certainly worth seeing, but it needs to be looked at with a critical eye. While his attention was fixed securely on oppression based on race, Mamet (hopefully) accidentally made his only woman a second-class character.
Ramona Ostrowski is a senior at Boston University studying English and Theatre and an Artistic Intern at New Rep. She previously spent a summer as a Literary Intern at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center where she served as the lit rep on a new musical by Anton Dudley, Charlie Sohne and Keith Gordon and a new play by Dan LeFranc. At BU, she has been the dramaturg on two School of Theatre productions and a staged reading of a new work, acted in numerous plays, and is a member of the Feminist Collective.
There’s no denying Mamet is clever and provocative: the last one to deny it would no doubt be Mamet himself. That may be his biggest problem. His early plays avoided the need to provoke the pesky liberals among whom he lived in Cambridge for many years. On the other hand, I did see Oleanna with Rebecca Pidgeon and William H. Macy on its opening night at the Hasty Pudding in Cambridge. (I was sitting behind Mamet, and when it finished, he turned to is friend and asked, “Too Academic?”) I ignored the play’s lack of character development and was intrigued by it as a way of provoking discussion. The language had been delivered at machine gun speed, particularly by Macy, who was, at the time, one of the the best actors at performing Mamet. The playwright had just married Rebecca Pidgeon and she, too, gave a terrific performance.
The very first of Mamet play I saw was Sexual Perversity in Chicago with F. Murray Abraham and Peter Riegert in 1976. It was one of the slickest, sharpest performances I’d ever seen. (Years later, during an interview, I mentioned that to Abraham, who leaned back in his chair and said: “I was quite good in that wasn’t I?”) The play’s bombastic, often deluded characters struck me as representations of contemporary American types less than fully formed characters, but his crackling use of language, the play of words, and the rhythm of his dialogue demonstrated that a well-directed and masterfully acted production of this playwright could be a great night of theater.
Race feels didactic and there is a bit of hubris to his cloying and ‘academic’ discourse on race, sexism, and lawyers. There are a number of new black playwrights who bring forward more honest discussions on the subject of race. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Neighbors, Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, Tarell Alvin McCrarey’s Brother Sister Plays, Suzan Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog (which had a terrific production at New Rep in 2005) and many of August Wilson’s ten plays have been produced recently in Boston. But all the more reason to bring on a discussion of race and ethics via Mamet. The more discussion and argument there is the better.
My real suggestion is that Mamet should be played without so much thrashing about. The best Mamet performances come from the way he and director Scott Zigler trained actors. Mamet and Macy developed an acting program called the ‘Practical Aesthetics Workshop’. It was based on Sanford Meisner and emphasized putting your attention on the other actors, focusing on the actor’s will, intention, and actions, on rehearsal, and on what the script required of you. Without spouting the program’s philosophy, the result emphasized language ,not character. One grows from the other. The result can seem stiff and robotic at first, but as the language roils up, the power of the play increases. We become hypnotized more by the words than any fluttering about on stage. It certainly is a playwright’s conceit, but to see Macy engage this method, is to be amazed at the contained power of a performance, and the music of Mamet’s language.
After I saw David Mamet’s Race, I was unsure how I felt. I had to think about it. At first, I was disappointed, because I did not feel like there were full, fleshed out characters. I did not walk away from the performance really knowing Jack or Henry; they did not feel like real characters, merely stereotypes of lawyers. None of the characters are full, and simply, the play lacks deep characters.
But then, the day after I saw it, I had a conversation with Ronan Noone, and he asked me, “Did it keep your attention for 90 minutes?” And I said,”Yeah, it was difficult to look away.” Then, he responded, “Well then, I think it was successful in what i set out to do.” What could I say? The play is immensely entertaining; it held my attention, as I sought to figure out whether or not she was raped and who is actually to blame. The pay is enthralling in its ability to entertain and keep the focus of the audience is truly impressive.
So, it is successful. It sets out to entertain, to challenge the audience, to keep them focused, as well as thinking about issues of race. So, as a playwright myself, while I might have issues about the characters, I hope and pray my plays are half as entertaining as Mr. Mamet’s.
Thanks to Robert Walsh for his response.
But it is unkind to Shakespeare to say that the entertaining confusions manipulated in Race have much to do with the rich ambiguities found in the plays of the Bard. Like many of Mamet’s scripts, Race makes use of the free-floating, often menacing, aura of uncertainty parlayed by Harold Pinter. The action drifts on top of a values-free vacuum – there isn’t too much meaning, as in Shakespeare, but a suggestion of too little, aside from the cynical games playing of the characters.
Mamet finally resolves his mystery in a last-minute attempt, much as in Oleanna, to give us a (victimized?) young woman whose purpose is to teach the well-meaning liberals in the audience a lesson about the hazards of tolerance. Thus the thinness of characterization in both plays — the women are revenge fantasy devices, not characters in a multidimensional tragedy.
Out of curiosity what would you call Race? A comedy, as New Rep has it, a tragedy as Mamet would have it, or a tragicomedy, which would put it in the Pinter mode.