Bay Area Theater Review: RACE (American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco)

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by Stacy Trevenon on October 31, 2011

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area

PRINCIPLES ON TRIAL

Playwright David Mamet is a master of provocative, gut-wrenching truths packed in fast-paced, blue dialogue, and Race, his 90-minute, one-act take on racism and the American legal system, is chock-a-block with his shining, confrontational style. The verdict on A.C.T.’s production (a west coast premiere following last year’s Broadway run) is that it very nobly does him justice with a refreshing evening of biting, off-color wit amid plenty to think about.

Race by David Mamet at the American Conservatory Theatre – directed by Irene Lewis - Bay Area Theater Review by Stacy TrevenonInspired perhaps by his father, a first-generation American Jewish labor lawyer, Mamet presents the story of two lawyers – one black, one white – who debate on whether or not they should take the case of a wealthy, privileged white man accused of assaulting a black woman. The deliberation is heightened by the presence of their attractive, young, black, female associate. By the time this Race is run, Mamet has not just put racism on trial, but the legal system itself, including the sexual and cultural politics that underlie it. Add gender inequity and damning sexual imagery, and the play becomes a whirlwind of the nature of guilt and self-redemption that is stark, inarguable, and side-splittingly funny.

Race by David Mamet at the American Conservatory Theatre – directed by Irene Lewis - Bay Area Theater Review by Stacy TrevenonThis compelling powerhouse of words is enhanced by Irene Lewis’ taut direction and four well-cast actors. The three lawyers are committed to a legal system which doesn’t accommodate their views on right and wrong; that, combined with their perceptions into faulty human nature, causes a tension that, true to Mamet, demands personal cross-examination. Chris Butler, with a voice that drips innuendo, is tailor-made as the sardonic and savvy law partner Henry Brown, while Anthony Fusco smoothly symbolizes the status quo as white partner Jack Lawson, though he occasionally shows mannerisms which make the actor come off more slick than the lawyer being portrayed. Susan Heyward is persuasively well-defined and full of surprises as Susan, the newbie junior associate who does the unthinkable by following her own path. As she does, she upends what we think of as sanctities, such as guilty-until-proven-innocent, objective representation, or the ability to not judge someone based on their color or accent. (Unseen on stage, yet all the more a strong presence for her absence, is the unnamed victim.) Kevin O’Rourke as client Charles Strickland is a perfect picture of upstanding urbanity with all-too-human flaws.

Race by David Mamet at the American Conservatory Theatre – directed by Irene Lewis - Bay Area Theater Review by Stacy TrevenonChris Barreca’s spacious conference-room set (brightly lit by Rui Rita) fits the subject matter perfectly: An imposing wall of books is set at an angle next to a wall of glass through which characters are seen interacting, squirming or turning their backs to the action unfolding on center stage. It’s a symbolic effect that underlines the transparency and duplicity which lies at the heart of the legal system.

Mamet’s deft use of humor makes his scathing commentary a little easier to swallow without softening its impact. His sharp Race by David Mamet at the American Conservatory Theatre – directed by Irene Lewis - Bay Area Theater Review by Stacy Trevenonrepartee and sly wisecracks elicit hardy laughter even as there was a sense that maybe we’re chuckling at something we shouldn’t find funny (although one of Brown’s pointed lines – “Where’s the watermelon” – educed outright gasps). The playwright points out that America is not as open-minded as one would like to think, both in the courtroom and the bedroom. In the end, Race is less about racism and more about the human predilection to mold truths into what we’d like them to be.

photos by Kevin Berne

Race
American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco
scheduled to end on November 13
for tickets, visit http://act-sf.org/

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