Race, now receiving its Dallas premiere by Kitchen Dog Theater, has all the signatures of a David Mamet play: rat-a-tat dialogue, explosive (and often offensive) language, conversations that dismiss the niceties and cut right to the raw and sometimes ugly truth. It premiered on Broadway in 2009 with James Spader, starring not as the rich white guy accused of doing something awful, surprisingly, but as his lawyer.
Here, a focused Max Hartman portrays that character: Jack Lawson, one-half of a legal team hired to defend Charles Strickland (Cameron Cobb, more sympathetic than smarmy) in a high-profile case. The other half of that team is Henry Brown (played by Jamal Gibran Sterling), and his skin color is the main reason Strickland is seeking their services. Strickland is accused of raping a young black woman, and he knows that, whether consciously or not, race will be an important factor in the jury’s verdict. As all the characters argue throughout the short play, we are not as colorblind as we might hope.
The plot possesses plenty of twists and turns, including more than one “aha!” moment concerning evidence and witnesses. These conventions exist to move the story along, but they also allow the characters to riff on the titular subject matter, drawing out proclamations designed to horrify and shock supposedly prim audiences. Sadly, today’s theatergoer has heard it all (probably set to music—thanks, Book of Mormon!), and Mamet’s barbed zingers land with more of a bounce than a bang.
Rounding out the quartet is Susan, a young and pretty legal aid who takes the brunt of not only racist but also sexist assumptions as she’s drawn into the increasingly complex situation. Jaquai Wade may not appear as comfortable onstage as her castmates, but as the play settles into itself and the revelations are made, her portrayal of Susan sinks into place.
Hartman and Sterling, on the other hand, are at ease from the beginning, which arrives in a rush of sound courtesy of John M. Flores. These scene-starting aural attacks that hurtle at the audience like an oncoming train perfectly mirror the pace set by director Christopher Carlos. At around 90 minutes (intermission included), Race appears slight but proves itself unrelenting. Hartman drives the script, planting himself on the stage while others come and go in fits of busyness and agitation. He and the rest of the cast hardly breathe—we don’t, either.