In Theater J’s production of David Mamet’s blistering play, Race, the known and the unknown ricochet around the stage faster than a speeding arbitrage. The firm of attorneys Jack Lawson (who is white) and Henry Brown (who is black) has just been approached by a prospective client, the wealthy, white Charles Strickland (played by Leo Erickson), fresh from his rejection by previously sought counsel. Accused of raping a young black woman, Strickland bears eerie, if not absolute, resemblance to French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn and his notorious sexual assault charge of similar ilk, although Mamet’s play was written before that scandal broke.
Theater J’s whip-smart production of David Mamet’s ‘Race’ is the go-to production for the unflenchable among us.
Jack (played by James Whalen) and Henry (played by Michael Anthony Williams) are reluctant to take Charles on as a client since the evidence, plus the race, class, and gender volatility of the situation all point to his guilt—or, more importantly, to his case being unwinnable. The firm, after all, is ultimately most concerned with their bottom line, and winning cases is their path to prosperity. “I tried being poor,” Jack says. “I didn’t like it.”
Meanwhile, Charles denies the charge, claiming consensuality and his own version of a he-said/she-said misunderstanding that he insists could be cleared up if the lawyers would only allow him to release his hand-crafted press statement. With wiltingly funny derision Jack and Henry try, again and again, to disabuse Charles from this idea.
Into this male triad enters Susan (played by Crashonda Edwards), a promising young African-American lawyer recently hired by the two-attorney firm. To her, we presume, will fall the task of illuminating the gender and race complexities embedded in this entangled web. The law, however, is much more complicated than that. “There are no facts about the case,” says one of partners, echoing Nietzsche. “There are two opposing fictions.”
Mamet does not burden us with case law—Race is not a crackling, four-letter-word version of Law and Order. What he gives us are the visceral, unspeakable undercurrents of the personal and the political that so divide us as a people. Under Director John Vreeke’s incisive direction, Mamet’s scorching intelligence litters the stage with insights, confessions, and truths. Guilt and shame. Shame and guilt. Black and white. Woman and Man. All swept up in an incendiary dance.
With mesmerizing nimbleness Jack and Henry crisscross the stage. Lean and tall, their gray gabardine suits swaying like silk, they are boxers, punching the air with legal arguments. Here a right hook of language, there a cross of logic, an uppercut of evidence lacking, they churn the law into a sweet science of strategy against their odds-on favorite foe: a guilty verdict for their client. Whalen gives Jack a swaggering, cynical certainty that decimates those in his way. “People are stupid,” he tells Susan. “I don’t think blacks are exempt.” Williams’ Henry is a velvety-smooth, acidly-funny crash course in candor. “Do all black people hate whites?” he poses to Charles. “Let me put your mind at rest. You bet we do.”
Costumed by Erin Nugent, Whalen and Williams look every ounce the prosperous attorneys at law, pristinely groomed from the shine of their shoes, the argyle of their socks, to the shimmer of their designer ties and the salt and pepper of their hair—be it wavy or sparse. Indeed, only the extraordinary physical precision of Whalen and Williams belies their profession as actors. Our disbelief is utterly suspended, and we the spectators—veterans that we are of countless legal dramas—watch this bruising, sometimes wickedly funny match of legal wit with twisted interest. Is the client guilty? Is he not?
While Jack and Henry work the stage, Erickson’s Charles, stands firm, rooting himself upstage or down, immutable, it seems, trapped in the labyrinth of his own presumptions: he is innocent. Erickson gives Charles the almost off-hand, arrogant demeanor of a man whom “no one has said no to in 40 years.”
So too does Edwards’ Susan hold herself still onstage, watching, arms crossed, her countenance the essence of skepticism: Charles is guilty. Edwards plays Susan with resolute clarity. The law is about justice, she asserts, while her bosses and the audience—sprinkled as it is with attorneys—scoff. But it is Susan who delivers the counterpunch of the evening, one certain to enliven post-show discussions for weeks.
The production values at Theatre J, as usual, were crisp and high. The minimalist, lawyerly sets by Misha Kachman; the uptown, late-in-the-day lighting design by Andrew Griffin; the sound design by Chris Baine; and the properties design by Becca Dieffenbach established well the impeccable interior of a successful small law firm. Shadowy projections at the top of the show by projections designer Jared Mezzochi bespoke the Jungian anima/animus to come, and the costume design by Nugent cinched the roles of each of the characters.
In a metropolitan area where one out of every eighteen residents is a lawyer, and the fissures of race, class, and gender are a subtext like no other, Theater J’s whip-smart production of David Mamet’s Race is the go-to production for the unflenchable among us.
Running Time: 60 minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: Adult Language.
Race plays through March 17, 2013 at Theater J at The Washington DC Jewish Community Center’s Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater – 1529 16th Street NW, in Washington, D. For tickets, call Box Office Tickets at (800)494-TIXS, or purchase them online.