Directed by Chuck Smith
Produced by Goodman Theatre
At Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Lawyers make a case for the cynical man in a “race” with no winners
There’s something seductively easy about cynicism for the people in Race. And it’s true—if you assume the worst, you’ll frequently be right and look like a regular Nostradamus. Racism is the same way—it’s a lazy time saver to gloss over nuances and group people together as easily as a cynic ignores anything but self-interest. It comes as no surprise then that these two -isms find themselves comfortably coexisting in David Mamet’s 2009 work of blunt words and sharp barbs. What begins as a mystery concerning the alleged rape of a black woman by a wealthy white man pulls open the racial divide between two jaundiced lawyers inadvertently defending him.
After firing (or being fired) by his first lawyer, fat-cat and thinly-veneered-gentleman Charles Strickland (Patrick Clear) has come to the law offices of Lawson & Brown because he knows a biracial boutique may be the most politically advantageous move. It’s one thing to claim a “black friend” as a shield against racial accusations, but another to claim a black defender in a white-on-black crime.
Jack Lawson (Marc Grapey) and Henry Brown (Geoffrey Owens) have been partners for 20 years. They have no problem quickly eviscerating the befuddled and spoiled Strickland. Showering him with uncomfortable truths about the nature of justice and humanity in a whirlwind of dialogue that nearly breaks into Billy Flynn’s “Razzle Dazzle” number via Chicago. For them, Justice isn’t just blind, but with the right story you can get her to pull her blouse open and show you just what tips the scales. It’s an education that never quite sticks to Strickland.
On the outside looking in is newbie lawyer Susan (Tamberla Perry). Her views haven’t yet been entirely corrupted by her new bosses (she still has her own biases), and she may or may not be the wild card no one sees coming. She’s a black woman in a modern world, and that’s a double-whammy of discrimination that is something she’s not entirely unwilling to exploit when it’s convenient.
The twists and turns that froth forward from the clash of four myopic people who inhabit a world they think they irrefutably understand is laughable to observe. It’s the laughter of self-defense, as their most ugly and conceited viewpoints are shamelessly brandished in a sociopathic bid for the big win and sometimes hit us square in our complacent derrieres. It’s the flippant nature of the observations that is cutting in its brutality (“Do all black people hate whites? Let me put your mind at rest. You bet we do.” quips Henry). It’s not just race that gets skewered, but the legal system itself. There’s a legal leap in logic the audience must ignore to get on board with just how the case gets taken, but Lawson and Brown’s take on the different “facts” as just “opposing fictions” rings true.
Mamet isn’t interested in giving dissenting opinions of optimism. These people are unabashedly vain and blithely scoff dissent. Marc Grapey is deliciously sarcastic as Lawson, and Geoffery Owens plays Brown with near-comic pompousness. Patrick Clear’s Mr. Strickland has little more to do than sit in a conference room and be berated for being white, or guilty, or repentant, or rich—whatever the scene calls for. It’s hard to believe a man as worldly as Strickland would be so naive when it comes to the reality of his situation, so Clear brings us an isolated Ivy-leaguer from a pre-modern era that seems to have skipped the Civil Rights movement. Tamberla Perry is the girl in a man’s world—a white man’s world specifically—and her Susan is a delicate balance of vulnerability and practicality necessary to survive there. As directed by Chuck Smith, the production’s whip-smart pace makes the ninety minutes fly until an abrupt ending leaves the audience in more than one kind of dark.
In this cynical world, the cyclical words of Mamet’s characters are frustrating in that they are unrepentantly bleak. As a piece about racism in America, that makes a sad sort of sense. Maybe we are just talking in circles without moving forward. As a piece about the law, it falls into another tired (and not nearly as true as Hollywood would paint it) stereotype of the scheming, soulless lawyer that is forgiven only for the performances. It’s not really about the law anyway. It’s a springboard to a race discussion that for some will seem tired and played out. The real trick with Race is that when it’s all said and done, we may find ourselves feeling a sort of sick sympathy with cynicism. After, right-wingers will nod where no one can see; liberals will scoff where everyone can, and the whole dance begins again. Cynicism is a (seemingly easy) escape route from that tribal madness because it erases race in favor of a kind of truth at the core of many of us: we’re all in it to win it. But whether that nuanced view wins because it’s right or because it fulfills itself like any prophecy, Race is eerily silent.
Mamet’s mirror is unflattering and highly stylized. Race, like it’s characters, haughtily seems to not care much if its liberal or conservative, new or old, right or wrong. It’s hard to tell if Mamet himself buys into the kind of lazy thinking expounded here or wants us to see it as a satirical and cautionary tale. Talking about racism is like talking about quantum physics. Both are tough subjects few like to discuss openly, and trying to observe anything blatantly seems to change the outcomes while turning your back creates chaos. The shelter from genuine effort afforded by the jaded mind isn’t pretty, but it is an oddly entertaining catharsis for a real world that resists satisfying answers.
Date Reviewed: January 23, 2012
For more info checkout the Race page on theatreinchicago.com
At Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, IL, call 312-443-3800, www. goodmantheatre.com, tickets $25-89, Wednesdays at 7:30pm, Thursdays at 2pm, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm, Sundays at 2pm and 7:30pm, running time is 90 minutes with a 15 minute intermission, through February 19.