Not Easy to Talk About Race

Mamet’s play pushes all the hot buttons, and Next Act and audience struggle with the results.

By - Feb 3rd, 2014 02:32 pm
Race - Photo by Timothy Moder

Race – Photo by Timothy Moder

Almost any excuse is a good one to see what innovative artistic director David Cescarini has pulled up from his decades of devotion to good theater in Milwaukee. And to visit the attractive huge lobby and high-ceiling box-seated intimacy of Next Act Theatre, 255 S. Water St., one of the best places in the city to enjoy theater.

Almost any excuse except perhaps Race, running through February 23 at Next Act.

Oh, in general reputation, David Mamet is a celebrity playwright distinctive in street credibility and emotional confrontations fresh from the headlines.  In Race, which premiered on Broadway in 2009, he deals brutally and sometimes probingly with white and black, law and justice, lies we tell each other and backlashes in how skin coloration inflicts and infects every aspect of society.

Sounds great, but in truth it’s a tough play to make work. Next Act tries. From the office design of Rick Graham to the rapidly moving or statue-frozen staging provided by Edward Morgan, there is considerable theatrical polish rubbed into what winds up as a rescue effort. When only two of the four actors come close to what’s needed — and the plot twists pile upon each other like a rejected episode of “Law and Order — 90 minutes becomes a very long night.

Two law partners, one black and one white, with a young female black attorney inserted into key discussions, must decide whether rich, arrogant, middle-aged white Charles Strickland can be defended on charges of raping a black woman he claims to love.

All the elements — taking racial sides, beating up on the legal profession, the expectations of white privilege and the ingrained suspicion of blacks – are there not just to analyze and reconfigure. Mamet touches every button, but then retouches, touches again and reboots at every shudder of our mental computer.

Race - Photo by Timothy Moder

Race – Photo by Timothy Moder

It would take powerful ensemble acting to make us stop shuddering at the playwright’s excesses, or see the human roots under his philosophical “gotcha” moments. Or to overcome the telegraphed melodramatic turns of the plot.

Tiffany Renee Johnson proves the weakest link and she has a pivotal role — the young black attorney constantly sparking the dilemmas. With maturity the actress may grasp overlapping naturalistic dialog, or even find ways to make Mamet’s pointed inquisitions sound natural. In time she may learn about genuinely revealing and disguising feelings, since she does possess the movement and vocal basics. But for now she is indicating what the character should be thinking and saying, which is a sophisticated form of mugging.

The usually polished Lee Palmer embodies the observant black lawyer whom our eyes should always be turning to for insight and quiet jests, but opening night he was floundering to grab key lines and lacked the observational strength and vocal authority to rivet us.

The two clear experts at this stage style are Jonathan Smoots as Strickland and Cecsarini as Jack, the experienced cynical white lawyer. Smoots moves from repulsively haughty, resistant rich defendant to a quieter understanding of his circumstance — without tipping his hand as to guilt or innocence.

Race - Photo by Timothy Moder

Race – Photo by Timothy Moder

Cecsarini’s Jack roams the stage with glib style and razor-sharp delivery. With Smoots he is relaxed enough to trust a partner onstage and not try to do it all alone. With Johnson he works too hard to fill in for her, unintentionally revealing how this could have been a stronger evening.

There is a curious sidelight to Race. Mamet’s early impact was with plays so topically red-hot (American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross, Speed-the-Plow, Oleanna) that feedback from the actors and audience members was a key aspect of the experience.  For reasons inexplicable particularly in a play like Race, the playwright now contractually prevents feedback with the actors after the performances.

This edict tends to chill debate and perhaps reinforce attitudes that people brought into the theater rather than bouncing their experience off others.  Open exchange has always helped fuel the power of live theater, and it seems just silly to artificially block it.

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You can find his blog here.

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