The set-up: The title of David Mamet's last successful play is a four-letter word. Surprise?
Mamet is the Shakespeare of the scatological, the poet of the profane. He's the only contemporary playwright who can drop the f-bomb with such gleeful aplomb, as well as other earthy, Chaucerian depictions of anatomy and procreation. He turns salty street talk into nouns, adjectives, and adverbs, like a contemporary Strunk and White primer on the improper way of writing. The execution: At his best, his brittle dialogue sparks and sets fire to our imagination. His characters dare say things we can only dream of saying. He likes to slap us hard to slap us awake. Think of those desperate real estate sharks in Glengarry Glen Ross (his Pulitzer Prize-winner), the equally desperate movie producers in Speed-the-Plow, the desperate but hapless university professor in Oleanna. (In modesty, we'll draw a veil over last December's Broadway bomb The Anarchist, that posted its closing notice the day after its premiere, although the two leading characters were desperate in their own ways: one to get out of jail; one to make sure that the old hippie revolutionary stays in jail.)
The lawyers in Race, Jack and Henry (Kevin Daugherty and Mirron Willis), are just as desperate. They want to win. Their prospective client is phenomenally rich, white business whiz-kid Charles Strickland (Justin Doran). But his story, as he is, is shady at best and doesn't add up. They don't trust him. Black co-partner Henry doesn't like him at all, and says so as soon as the play begins, practically spitting out his contempt. New associate Susan (Joy Brunson), sleek and glamorous, poses demurely near the desk. She states with unequivocal verve, "He acts guilty." (If you know your Mamet, this beautiful office accessory will quickly turn into a black widow spider.)
Pompous and arrogant, Charles proclaims his innocence. He didn't rape that black woman in the hotel, although as the facts pile up, his lily-white innocence is anything but rock-solid. Witnesses (a preacher and his wife of thirty years, no less) have sworn that they heard unspeakable things going on in the room next door; the victim is a prostitute with a long standing relationship with Charles; Charles is a married man; his past is studded with masked racism. Charles wants Jack and Henry to take his case because the law firm is biracial, so if he's defended by a black attorney he figures that will sway the jury. He'll pay handsomely. Everybody's out for something, bribable or amoral, in Mamet's gimlet-eyed view of the world and how it really works behind the scenes.
Right from the start, Mamet blowtorches our perceptions. About race -- how whites look at blacks, how blacks look at whites -- about gender, about gender and race, about the law and gender and race, about unscrupulous upholders of its justice, about privilege, about the obsequious press. He throws it all at us, like a delirious adults-only Law and Order, where characters Jack McCoy and Lennie Briscoe, without TV censors, say exactly what they think. Mamet holds nothing back, and the first half of Race is thoroughly absorbing and edge-of-your-seat exciting. This is exceptional theater, with surprising plot twists that make us smile at the playwright's wickedly playful inventiveness. Truly, we don't know what's coming next.
The surprises continue after the unnecessary intermission, but Mamet's ever-provoking theses hit some speed bumps in the second half that, while not stopping the adroit theatrics, move us into the slow lane. Susan's motives take precedence here and the propulsive momentum stalls, as does the play's mysterious tension. There's no pure ending to the play, which neatly leaves Charles' guilt or innocence undecided -- although he declares offstage, but we're not sure he really means it -- but the conclusion leaves us undecided, too, and unsatisfied. Obviously, this is Mamet's point, but he's set up such an intriguing court room who-done-it from the beginning that we feel cheated. The sharks have turned toothless.
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Under the perceptive and quick-witted direction of Eileen Morris, the acting quartet is exceptional. They breeze through Mamet's frayed, jagged dialogue as if spewing bolts of soft silk. They make curses sound like benedictions. (You'd think we'd be used to this type of rough, politically incorrect speech after years of R-rated movies and comedians, hip hop lyrics, and numerous plays, but the Sunday matinee audience still gasped at certain vivid blue tones in the dialogue. Nice to know that theater can still astound, horrify, and offend.)
Daugherty, as Jack, the white partner in the law firm, is the play's heart; it's the only well-rounded character. It's Jack's play, for sure. In his cocksureness, his lawyerly competence, his guilt, and later, atonement, he anchors the play. Daugherty (former artistic director of Island ETC, Galveston) brings a wealth of telling detail to his conflicted character. Willis is equally as impressive as blustery co-partner Henry, with a chip on his shoulder as big as his basso voice is deep and wide. He cuts an impressive figure on stage, and we're never sure if he's going to strike out at the perceived hurts he feels, or just strike out because he can.
Except for his ill-fitting and mismatched suit (a misstep from the very observant costume design by Jacqueline Wright), Doran is the epitome of the well-heeled heel, Charles, due everything because of status and bank account. Dripping disdain and copious pints of noblesse oblige, he's full of scorn at the little people. He makes us want him to be guilty as charged. Brunson, as Susan, the Delilah in the office, has the hardest role to make credible. That she succeeds so well is through her absolute naturalness and fierce theatricality. She nimbly treads over Mamet's prickly exposition. This is her Ensemble debut, and we hope to see a lot more of her in the future.
The verdict: Mamet gives us an emergency room full of blunt force trauma. Even with the slight detour near the end, Race hurtles onward. The racial collision is bloody, and we're never sure who's ultimately at fault, but we can't look away. This is theater at its rawest, incendiary and provocative. It's red meat, but USDA prime for sure. David Mamet's dissection of our racial problems careens through June 2 at Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main. Purchase tickets online at ensemblehouston.com or call 713-520-0055. $15-$27.