Tolstoy was right: It's more fun watching people be miserable. And so we have David Mamet, the American playwright who has brought us the delightful anguish of Oleanna (in which a young woman accuses her professor of sexual harassment) and the stunning treachery of Glengarry Glen Ross (about disreputable realtors plotting against one another). And, most recently, Race, a triptych of short acts about lawyers who consider taking on a controversial rape case involving a billionaire.
That the production of Race now on display at iTheatre Collaborative is a stunner has more to do with some fine performances and coil-tight direction than with the material; Race is not Mamet's strongest script. The typically Mametian setup involves a socially prominent, rich white guy who's been accused of raping a black woman. He's come to a mixed-race law firm, hoping that will gain him some sympathy from a jury, and insisting that the facts of his case and his own celebrity will be enough to prove him innocent. What follows is a lot of cleverly phrased shouting that, like all of Mamet's harangues, asks more questions — about sex, power, and racism — than they answer.
It's always a pleasure to see Mike Traylor take the stage. As an embittered black man and a successful lawyer, he delivers polemic on racism and commentary on the amorality of the legal profession with an amped-up intensity that allows us to simultaneously hate and admire his character. Christopher Haines, who reveals clues to Mamet's mystery story and spouts speeches about the evils of news media, was born to read Mamet aloud. He makes the sputtering epigrams of an angry lawyer positively sing.
Drawing focus from either of these actors is a tall order, and so director Charles St. Clair wisely cast lovely Nicole Belit as a newly recruited young lawyer, the calm in this cacophonous storm. Susan is there to define the battle between male and female, black and white, rich and poor, and — because she is a woman in a David Mamet play — to be smart and terrifying and overwhelmingly attractive. Even merely standing still, listening while her employers reveal their corruption, she exudes intelligence and mystery, and is utterly captivating.
For his part, St. Clair resists the urge to make a play that's really all about dialogue into a joust, and so his actors often stand stock still while shouting monologues and vile profanity. It's a trick that forces us to listen to the desperation of these people, and that allows a fine group of actors to make Mamet's newest play appear more profound than it truly is.