After treating theatergoers to what amounted to a dramatic feast in its first outing of the current season, “Kite Runner”, New Rep has followed up with a disappointing palate cleanser, the David Mamet play, “Race”. Thin and trim almost to the point of anorexia, this is Mamet Lite, certainly not a bad night of theater, but not a great one either. It does have a hearty helping of his trademark rapid-fire dialogue with many a dollop of down and dirty language. What doesn’t help is the basic plotting that has more than a few unbelievable coincidences, absurd plot devices, and more holes than a slice of Swiss cheese. For a playwright with his reputation, it’s really shocking, not so much to hear Mamet’s neoconservative leanings or salty wordplay as to encounter such sloppy writing. (As an example, can he truly believe Bermuda is in the Caribbean?). He appears to have bitten off more than he can ruminate upon in a spare ninety intermission-less minutes.
The plot, such as it is, involves the accusation that a white man has raped a black woman, and what various agendas this brings to the surface when a team of lawyers begins to develop its defense. Not so coincidentally, this team also consists of a white male and a couple of blacks, one male, one female. The bulk of the play revolves around the baggage each character brings to such a volatile issue and how this affects each one’s opinion on guilt or innocence. Mamet seems driven to depict these viewpoints in what he no doubt sees as unexpected and therefore dramatic ways. Without much support for his take on race in our time, he skewers well-meaning, often subliminal pseudo-liberals with knee-jerk reactions making them overly color-blind. He gives himself away in an article he wrote at the time of the play’s Broadway production in which he pontificates that “all drama is about lies; when the lie is exposed, the play is over”. Ouch. One would have thought drama, rather than intending to deceive, instead depends on gradual unfolding of truths that have been intentionally withheld until the appropriate revelation. But this is Mamet’s play and his current world view, take it or leave it.
New Rep’s production has some great elements in it. The direction by Robert Walsh is crisp, aided significantly by the dramatic lighting by Scott Pinkney and an unusual set by Janie E. Howland. The cast of four (Patrick Shea as the defendant, Ken Cheeseman as the lead attorney, Cliff Odie as his partner, and Miranda Craigwell as their assistant) manages the rhythm of Mamet well, if a bit shaky at times. (It’s difficult to distinguish, with this author, when an actor might have gone up on his lines as opposed to when this is in the text). It’s a well crafted effort, unfortunately in the service of an unsatisfying evening. When all was said and done, it was like the politically incorrect adage about eating Chinese food: one left hungry for more theater.