Mamet Argues Both Sides in Legal Drama Race

David Mamet writes great arguments. He is, arguably, the current American theater master at constructing conflict among smart characters driven by greed, anger or envy.

Mamet's best plays — Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo, Speed-The-Plow — are built around tense back-and-forth verbal battles among vicious, ambitious, often desperate men. And so is Race, Mamet's 2009 drama now onstage at Kitchen Dog Theater in a strong regional premiere directed by Christopher Carlos.

"You know what you can say to a black man on the subject of race?" asks white lawyer Jack Lawson at the top of the play. He's just met a potentially deep-pocketed new client, white millionaire Charles Strickland, who has been accused of raping a young black woman in a hotel room. Answers Strickland, "Nothing."

Exactly. But that doesn't stop Lawson from saying a great many things about African Americans, from Dr. King to Rodney King, that wouldn't be acceptable in what we sanctimoniously still refer to as "polite society."

Mamet? Polite? Oh, please. He's an equal opportunity offender in Race (and in most of his previous plays). "I think all people are stupid," says lawyer Lawson. "Blacks are not exempt." He also thinks juries are stupid, and easily swayed when defendants are white and well off. "You give them [jurors] a hook on which to hang their bad judgment," Lawson says to his black law partner, Henry Brown, and to their latest hire, fresh law school grad Susan, who is black, gorgeous and a size two (mentioned more than once).

For this case, the hook could be that the victim, if she is one, is a home-wrecker lashing out after being spurned by her married lover. "Black people are allowed to commit adultery," says Lawson, tossing out defense tactics as easily as he tosses another mint into his mouth.

The questions asked and answered in this play aren't restricted to matters of racial inequality. Oh, no, that would be too easy for Mamet. The central issue about the maybe rape-y rich white guy veers off into bigger, longer discussions of what constitutes violent sexual behavior, about the imbalance of power in a have-versus-have-not scenario and about the privileges rich folks enjoy in the halls of justice. Like a good episode of The Practice, it also gives a juicy behind-the-scenes peek at how defense lawyers work as they pore over arrest reports looking for police slip-ups. He ripped the woman's sequin-laden dress off? Then why weren't there red sequins found on the hotel room carpet?

Hard to believe Race wasn't inspired by the real-life case of French millionaire diplomat Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was accused of assaulting a black hotel maid in New York City. But in a strange twist on life imitating art, the Strauss-Kahn scandal occurred in 2011, two years after the Broadway run of Mamet's play. (Charges against Strauss-Kahn were dismissed for lack of evidence and after the media turned on the victim, suggesting in story after story that the struggling African immigrant was looking for a financial windfall.)

Though Mamet starts out playing the race card in Race, by the second act he performs sleight of hand with the plot. Conditioned by hours of Law & Order, we in the audience are interested in finding out the guilt or innocence of the sleazy Mr. Strickland. But that character all but disappears as Race turns its spotlight on Susan, the young lawyer whose procedural errors mean Lawson and Brown will have to take on what is sure to be a sensational and hard-to-win case. With the client in the room, squirming, and then after Mamet has him banished offstage, the three attorneys go at it in a 40-minute volley of verbosity.

The bait-and-switch into office politics has Susan discovering some unpleasant details about her hiring. Is there something nefarious about how Lawson brought her into the firm? Does he have a secret agenda meant to punish her for daring to mistrust the white establishment and to write about it in a college thesis, which just happens to be on her desk?

That stuff makes Race a bit murky, but the performances by Kitchen Dog's actors keep it clicking along so well, you'll hardly notice that the rape case has been all but forgotten as the Lawson and Susan characters match wits and try to catch each other lying. There is something perversely entertaining about watching lawyers devour each other.

Playing Lawson, the part James Spader did on Broadway, is Max Hartman, currently Dallas theater's finest at portraying slick-haired snakes in bespoke suits. In this part, he seethes with middle-age rage, right up to his receding hairline. Jamal Gibran Sterling is good as the shrewd, strutting law partner, Henry Brown. JaQuai Wade warms up slowly as Susan, whom Mamet introduces so subtly she's barely there until the moment she's sitting at the table, strategizing with her fellow legal eagles.

Cameron Cobb is some years too young to be believable as Strickland (played by Richard Thomas in the New York cast). Instead of a womanizing tycoon, Cobb comes off as merely a misbehaving frat boy in a one-size-too-small jacket, which weakens Mamet's set-up pitting a person in power against the accusations of a woman defined immediately by the lawyers as a lying whore. What's needed is a real villain, someone whom the lawyers would think twice about representing.

Quibbles aside, this terse, talky play has plenty in it to appeal to fans of Mamet's way with words (and if you're wondering, yes, the N-word is among them). He's also made Race a sprint, not a marathon, coming in at a tight 80 minutes, including a 10-minute intermission.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner