By Jay Handelman
It has been only 10 years since David Mamet turned his jabbing theatrical finger on one of the most divisive and difficult subjects in modern society with his play “Race.” Sadly, the last decade hasn’t diminished the challenge we face talking about or dealing with the themes and ideas he raises, even if our perspective may have changed a bit.
That makes Mamet’s story still potent in an involving new production that closes Venice Theatre’s Stage II series season.
The play is set in the law offices, where a trio of attorneys — one white and two black — is contemplating taking on the case of a wealthy businessman who has been accused of raping a black woman. The businessman maintains it was consensual and part of an ongoing relationship (outside his own marriage).
The white partner, Jack Lawson, doesn’t really care to know if the man is guilty or not. All that matters, he says, is the story they tell to the jury and how convincing it is, though he admits that racial attitudes, and the man’s own personality, could quickly shift how a jury responds.
It seems like a somewhat simple case that would provide a hefty fee for the firm, but as evidence mounts, the attorneys have greater concerns, mostly centered on race, how they view one another and the historical nature of racism.
And their debate leads them to turn on one another. Jack and his partner, Henry, have suspicions about the new associate, Susan, whose own employment application raised some red flags during an extensive investigation. They overlooked the results to hire her. How much did her race play into the decision? Was she hired for quotas or to help win over jurors or judges?
Mamet isn’t so concerned with the details as much as the bigger picture questions the characters’ often halting, interrupted comments raise. In now typical Mamet fashion, the story is told in a fast-paced, staccato form, with unfinished sentences that leave some thoughts unspoken but clearly expressed.
By David Mamet. Directed by Kelly Wynn Woodland. Reviewed Friday, Venice Theatre Stage II, 140 W. Tampa Ave., Venice. Through May 12. 941-488-1115; venicestage.com.
It’s the kind of provocative play (one filled with strong language) that brings out the best in director Kelly Wynn Woodland. She has a passion for plays that make you think and push buttons, and she knows how to find the heart of issues and satirical humor without overstepping.
She brings out fine performances from her main cast members, including Chris Caswell as Jack; Kristofer Geddie as Henry; and DeNiesha Carr as their new hire, Susan. There’s a power play among them, especially between the two men and Susan, and the tables frequently turn.
Caswell’s Jack is calculating, as if playing his own chess game, while pondering potential approaches in the case. Geddie is more frantic, constantly on edge and easily riled, wary of every twist and concerned about potential damage to the firm.
Carr plays Susan with a strong but steady hand. She’s smart and sharp but makes rookie mistakes. Or is she actually trying to damage the case because of her own racial biases?
Chris Hines rounds out the cast, but doesn’t make such a strong impression as the businessman. He looks young for the role and doesn’t bring the command or bravado you’d expect from someone who has never been told no.
Tim Wisgerhof has designed a basic office set that allows for clear viewing, with audience members seated on three sides of the stage, and Woodland keeps the actors moving enough so no one is staring at an actor’s back for long. The actors are given a professional look by costume designer Adam-Bobby Farman.
There’s nothing easy about “Race,” both the play and the subject, and Mamet, even when he overreaches or throws too many twists or complications into the mix, knows where to poke to change the focus enough so that a big issue suddenly becomes personal. It is funny and sometimes difficult, but the challenge is rewarded with performances that keep you involved through the fast-paced, 75-minute running time.