"Race is the most incendiary topic in our history," says Jack Lawson, a white lawyer in the play, Race. It was true in 2009, when David Mamet's provocative oeuvre opened on Broadway. And it seems even more so today, after Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston and other locales where black lives appear not to have mattered. Race speaks to this particular historical moment, in the blunt cant and staccato rhythms that are a Mamet trademark.
The New York production, directed by Mamet himself, was set in a posh, book-lined office designed to intimidate. By contrast, and perhaps out of budgetary necessity, the set of the new production by the Rose Theatre Company is bare.
Law partners Jack Lawson and Henry Brown make do with homely furniture that might have embarrassed a garage sale. Lawson and Brown are legal bottom-feeders living by their wits. When wealthy Charles Strickland walks into their office with a checkbook, the opportunity seems too good to be true. Charged with raping a black woman, Strickland wants to hire Lawson and Brown to defend him, because they might be more hungry for victory than a prosperous firm and because Brown is black.
Lawson and Brown argue over whether to take on Strickland, whose portrayal by David Blazer seems a bit too wimpish. At the outset, Strickland thinks he can buy an acquittal and ought to be more assertive and angry when mercenary shysters dare question him. "The case is a loser," insists Brown. "The case hurts us, either way." But Lawson, for whom justice is merely a matter of staging the better courtroom show, cooks up what seems a winning strategy to get their client off the hook.
As Lawson, Joseph Urick is a pony-tailed predator who believes he sees through to the crude, unvarnished truth, certainly about race. However, his unmitigated cynicism proves merely inverted idealism; Lawson's confidence that he has no illusions about anything is itself an illusion.
"There is nothing a white person can say to a black person which is not both correct and offensive," he tells Susan, an attractive black woman who has recently been hired by Lawson & Brown. At first silent and submissive, Megan Van Dyke's Susan knows and does more than she lets on.
"This isn't about race," she observes. "This is about sex." Yes, but Race is, in fact, about power, the struggle among four rapacious personalities for control.
Directed by Morgan Clyde, this brisk and bracing production is an exhilarating exercise in coarse speech and crass emotions. "Hatred, fear, envy, and you just hit the trifecta," Torence White's Brown tells Strickland. From its outset to its ambiguous conclusion, Race scalds the nasty scabs of the human race.
$10-$12, 8pm Fri-Sat, The Rose Theatre Company, 11838 Wurzbach Rd., (210) 360-0004, therosetheatreco.com
Through August 29