You gotta wonder what women did to David Mamet to deserve such misogynist treatment in the play Oleanna and now with Race. Playwright Edward Albee has addressed his thorny relationship with his mother in many of his works with elegance, wit and sophistication, while conversely Mr. Mamet is ham-fisted in his obvious hatred of the female sex, portraying them as manipulating liars and whores.
In Race, you get both—and bigotry to boot. That Mr. Mamet tackles the powder-keg topic of racism or that he stops just shy of having actors appear in blackface to get a desperate rise out of the audience is not as bothersome as his portrayal of the female characters. The sole female on stage, a greenhorn African American lawyer named Susan (Crystal A. Dickinson), is reminiscent of Carol, the female protagonist in Oleanna. Both are conniving and two-faced, both have a hidden feminist and socialist agenda far bigger than what is happening in a closed room.
What niggles about these female is that they are drawn with such poisonous rancor and are so one-sided in their quest to destroy men that you cannot sympathize or relate to them. Even Race’s unseen female—a black woman accusing a rich white man of rape—is described alternately as a prostitute, an opportunist, and a stretcher of the truth.
And these women are not written with any humor or sense of forgiveness, like the male characters in Race and Oleanna, so you cannot even enjoy them. You are left watching these two humorless hatchet faces be hell-bent on hoodwinking the penis-possessed and teaching them a big ole lesson. Where’s the sport in that?
Fun and outrage are largely missing in Mr. Mamet’s Race and you really miss his celebrated fiery zingers and the highly charged provocation of his rat-a-tat-tat dialogue. Sure, there are f-bombs galore, along with the n-word and a couple of c-words not usually bandied about in polite society. There should be some sort of sense of vicarious, taboo pleasure in watching people talk brutally about race—how white people really don’t like or trust black people and vice-versa, and how black people believe white people are prejudiced jerks who can’t or won’t see beyond skin color and get all stupid and inept every time ethnicity comes up.
This type of out in the open, no holds barred discussion takes place throughout Race as two partners in a prestigious law firm, the white Jack (Kurt Zischke) and the black Henry (Guisseppe Jones), discuss with Susan the confounding case of the privileged Charles (Anderson Matthews), who is caught up in a reputation-annihilating scandal involving whether or not he raped a black woman in a hotel room. While a few barbs beautifully hit their marks, especially in the second part of the play when the characters talk about shame and guilt and the essential human need to atone, for the most part there is no frisson of the nasty pleasure and scathing intelligence we have come to expect from Mr. Mamet.
Instead, everything appears rehashed and reheated, despite pitch-perfect performances from Mr. Zischke as the cynical, cutthroat lawyer and Mr. Jones as his devastatingly smarter equal, as well as Mr. Matthews as the conscience-riddled Charles. Miss Dickinson, on the other hand, does her level best with the thankless role of a living polemic.
The elements of surprise and shock would be welcome here. Instead, the whole play seems an elaborate set-up with Mr. Mamet simply going through the motions with no heart — or heartlessness — in his craft. And the audience is deprived of a pay off since we know early on that Susan is not who she seems and has something up her well-tailored sleeve. It is rather sad and pathetic, really, to watch a great playwright reach into his august bag of tricks and come up so empty-handed. You feel downright cheated.
Playing in repertory at the Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepardstown, WVA through July 31.
by David Mamet
Directed by Ed Herendeen
Produced by the Contemporary American Theater Festival
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
Running time: Approximately 75 minutes with no intermission