‘Race’ at The Rep reaffirms Mamet’s theatrical genius

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

A splendid production of “Race,” which opened Friday at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, reaffirms the American Jewish playwright David Mamet’s unique genius to write dialogue the way certain “bottom-feeders” of America speak while dealing with truly cutting-edge contemporary issues.

Mamet bravely steps on the “third rail” of American discourse: the inability of white and African-American people to have an honest conversation about race. The action takes place in a law firm where two partners are approached to represent a wealthy white business tycoon who has been publically accused of sexually assaulting an African-American young woman. He maintains she was his paramour and the sex was consensual.

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The law partners are Jack Lawson (Jeff Talbott), a cynical, foul-mouthed veteran attorney who is white, and Henry Brown (Morocco Omari), who takes pride in not being an affirmative action token black partner. Their new associate, fresh out of an Ivy League law school, is Susan (Zoey Martinson), a young African-American.

As is usual with Mamet plays, the rapid-fire dialogue is choppy, blunt and conjugates the f-word with an almost poetic rhythm. Mamet has a mimetic ear for exactly the way Americans talk, especially those who use profanity as a kind of punctuation. Charles Strickland (Mark Elliot Wilson) is not the kind of client who evokes empathy among his lawyers, and in fact has been referred to Lawson & Brown by an off-stage Jewish lawyer named Nicky Greenstein. Ethnic slurs abound in the script, including a reference to Greenstein, of whom Lawson says, “Greenstein’s is not stupid. He is one smart Jew!” There are racist and sexist slurs and inappropriate actions sprinkled throughout the action, and so this play is absolutely not for the faint of heart.

But if one can get past the harshness of the dialogue, “Race” makes for a humdinger of a play. Like “Oleana,” in which Mamet dealt with the issue of alleged sexual harassment on a college campus, or “American Buffalo,” which explored the peculiar honor among the petty crooks who run urban pawnshops, “Race” provides a perfect platform for exploring the subject matter of its title.

The two veteran partners in the firm, well played by Omari and Talbott, have a solid track record of providing competent defense to all kinds of clients, but Strickland’s sleaziness and arrogance is off-putting even to their jaded selves. Susan, played with just the right combination of Ivy League confidence and practical naïveté by Martinson, serves as a kind of conscience to her two older associates. Her mere presence as a young African-American who is similar in many ways to the young African-American woman accusing Strickland complicates the interactions. Adding to the intrigue are black-on-black conflicts between the older African-American lawyer Henry Brown and Susan.

Director Timothy Near, working with the small but highly energetic cast, keeps the action moving along briskly. Some of the actors stumble over some of Mamet’s trademark pauses and interrupted sentences, but they still do an admirable job of capturing the playwright’s distinctive rhythms of contemporary informal American speech.

Overall, “Race” is thought provoking, more than a little disturbing and a satisfying evening of theater.