PURE Theatre’s latest — and possibly most ambitious — undertaking is Race, a four-person play written by David Mamet. The 90-minute play, performed in one act, takes a philosophical and psychological look at the social constructs surrounding race, gender, and religion. Debuting on Broadway in late 2009, Race is Mamet’s most recent theatrical work, joining past acclaimed productions like Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-the-Plow as well as screenplays The Verdict and Wag the Dog.
The story follows a law firm comprised of a white partner, a black partner, and a promising black associate fresh out of law school grappling with the case of a wealthy white man accused of raping a young black woman. Directed by Sharon Graci, PURE’s production succeeds in holding Mamet’s critical mirror up to the audience and reflecting back on the lies responsible for our society’s racial constructs.
As the lawyers brainstorm potential defenses for fighting the rape allegations against Charles Strickland (R.W. Smith), it becomes apparent that the truth is inconsequential. High-profile cases, it seems, are won by appealing to “the mob,” which requires a mix of storytelling and public-relations savvy. Susan, the nascent attorney played by Liza Dye, observes the process with wide but unrevealing eyes. Dye holds Susan’s cards close to her chest, leaving the audience to form its opinion of her character based only on superficial evidence: She’s an attractive black woman.
While Charles Strickland’s case is at the center of the play, the actual man is as inconsequential as the truth behind the rape allegations. During the handful of times he appears on stage, he serves primarily as a catalyst for deeper discussion and plot progression. Mamet drew Strickland as a caricature, interchangeable with any uptown trust-fund brat. From his privileged upbringing and social status to his racial ignorance, the audience is given all the cue cards to dislike him. Despite having the odds stacked against the character, Smith endows Strickland with a vulnerability, making the character endearing, if only momentarily.
The firm’s partners, Henry Brown (played by City Paper contributor Michael Smallwood) and Jack Lawson (played by David Mandel) toss Mamet’s profuse dialogue back and forth with the rhythmic timing of a Shakespearean sonnet — anything less would seem clumsy. While Henry Brown, the black attorney, is hardened and unapologetic, it is Jack Lawson, the seemingly unflappable veteran, who undergoes a profound transformation. Mandel’s performance is authentic and nuanced. The audience connects with him as he realizes that merely being aware of the lies doesn’t make him immune to them.
Race delves into gritty material not often explored at PURE, or in local theater in general. PURE brings its signature unpretentious approach to the staging of this weighty theatrical work that could easily become esoteric. From the talented cast to the strong direction by Graci, PURE Theatre’s production of Race overflows with wit and profundity.