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David Mamet's incendiary Race in Raleigh

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Attorney Henry Brown isn't just indulging in another low-stakes round of the dozens. In an office at his New York law firm, he's giving billionaire Charles Strickland nothing less than a good, old-fashioned read; methodically, contemptuously ticking the insulting racial clichés and historical myths his potential client walked into his office believing.

After warming up with O.J. Simpson and Rodney King, Brown concludes, "Malcolm X was noble when he renounced violence. Prior to that he was misguided. Dr. King was, of course, a saint. He was killed by a jealous husband, and you had a maid when you were young who was better to you than your mother."

(Note to those readers awaiting their results from last week's bar exam: This approach deviates somewhat from the recommended protocols for prospective clients.)

How quickly does David Mamet raise the stakes in his 2009 drama, Race? Judge for yourself: We're still in the opening paragraph of his decidedly combustible script.

A number of similarly frank exchanges seem poised to take this attorney-client relationship beyond tough love and more into the realm of S and M. Still, they underline the point Brown's partner is forced to spell out further on: As an influential white business icon whose African-American lover has just brought rape charges against him, in court and in the national press, Strickland is about to discover that the sum of his lifelong assumptions about money, gender and race is about to land him in jail, whether he's guilty or not. "The legal process," Henry advises him, "is only about three things ... hatred, fear or envy. And you just hit the trifecta."

Despite the show's one-word title, it's clear that Mamet is just as interested in grilling some of the upper reaches of legal practice as he is our culture's prejudices surrounding the color line. In a world where offstage fixers can magically produce indictments and arrest reports outside of conventional channels and "get to" potential witnesses, the law becomes, in Henry's words, "not an exercise in metaphysics, but an alley fight." Mamet pulls the curtain back as one team gears up for a fateful throwdown.

But as events develop, Race aligns itself among those Mamet plays like Speed-The-Plow and Oleanna, in which alleged masters of a game ultimately find themselves gamed by the very systems they've established. Brown's partner, Jack Lawson, quickly becomes more preoccupied with the elements of craft—determining the most compelling story that can be devised and sold to a jury (with visual aids, if possible)—than with Strickland's actual guilt or innocence. As the touring version of the musical Chicago hits Durham this week, it bears noting that Jack has more than a hint of shyster Billy Flynn to him—without, that is, the razzle-dazzle. That emphasis on expedience will shock and disenchant Susan, a newcomer to the firm.

Though I'm certain of the script's strengths, this Hot Summer Nights production left me with a few questions last Thursday night. Particularly during the opening scene, Erick Pinnick and Alan Campbell had noticeable difficulty surfing the rhythms of Mamet's trademark percussive dialogue as lawyers Henry and Jack. True, actors can start off cold on any given night; here, it's just not clear to what degree they ever warmed up.

Given what I saw, I think it's much more likely that, under Lauren Kennedy's direction, Pinnick, Campbell and Lormarev Jones, as Susan, were still too cautious on the second night of their run, and trying to calibrate the sharper edges of their characters. Too often there was too much reserve in Henry's and Susan's responses to the racial cluelessness we see in a too likeable Jack, along with David McClutchey's Charles (who could stand a little sharpening as well). Reaction lines seemed rushed, and though Mamet's bombshell plot revelations didn't exactly fizzle, they never quite fulfilled the incendiary promise of the script.

But with a group this intelligent, I fully anticipate that a number of these problems will be dealt with by the time you see Race. Given the questions raised in Mamet's script, I think you should.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Lawyers in a knife fight."

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