DALLAS Just the announcement that David Mamet has a new play out gets fans and haters ready to perch on their soapboxes. His best days as a playwright are well behind him, many say — and it’s hard to argue with that. Still, it’s hard to find any other American playwright, aside from the equally divisive Neil LaBute (another writer often accused of misogyny or misanthropy), who causes such rabid reactions from audiences.
That will likely continue for local audiences that catch Kitchen Dog Theater’s area premiere of his play Race, which debuted in 2009 on Broadway. Even the title is loaded as a hot-button topic that still stirs heated conversation in this country, especially in the post-Trayvon Martin America.
Charles Strickland (Cameron Cobb) is a wealthy white man who has been accused of raping a black woman. He has ditched his former lawyer for a new firm of the partners Jack Lawson (Max Hartman) and Henry Brown (Jamal Gibran Sterling). This group was chosen specifically because there’s a black man (Brown) on the team.
But the deep conversations about attitudes toward race don’t necessarily involve Strickland. They come from within the firm, especially with the involvement of legal aide Susan (Jaquai Wade), a young, pretty black woman.
It’s not spoiling anything to announce that a Mamet play has strong and offensive language, and this one is filled with both, including racial epithets. And one can’t help but feel that this play was written strictly to provoke, rather than to give us a set of three-dimensional characters, as Mamet has done exquisitely in the past.
But perhaps that’s the point. The topic of race isn’t a black-and-white issue, speaking metaphorically. But as Mamet presents the arguments and barbs here, they’re not unlike those that many Americans, of all colors and creeds, have probably heard. Maybe they’re in dorm rooms or, to put it in a very contemporary context, on social media, where friends and friends-of-friends are often made or lost based on threads about race.
As directed by Christopher Carlos and on a set of a standard law office conference room (by Abby Kraemer), KDT’s production succeeds on its performances, notably Cobb’s. He takes what could have been a completely oily character and shades him with some sympathy, leaving the legal staff and the audience to wonder if, indeed, he is guilty. Sterling and Hartman duel effectively with Mamet’s language, and Wade does what she can with an underwritten character.
As is typical of Mamet, the questions and the word bombs never cease, and it ends abruptly without offering any solutions, as it should. On opening night though, it’s curious that Wade, who has the last line, didn’t include a racially loaded term that is written in the script. It’s unclear whether that was an opening-night bobble or a director’s choice. (I’m guessing that the playwright, a stickler about his words, doesn’t offer that as an option.)
Still, as the audience filed out, debates were already brewing. Even when Mamet is not at the top of his game, he keeps the conversation going.