Mamet’s ‘Race’ passes plot to judgment

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The season opener of Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theater will certainly generate conversation. Such is usually the case with plays written by David Mamet, he has made a name for himself as a provocateur and has clearly earned his stripes with a play titled “Race” in these days of an alleged post-racial America.

Mamet consistently goes for the jugular with his over-the-top style of confrontation, shocking and overlapping dialogue. So it should be no surprise that “Race,” making its Pittsburgh premiere after its 2009-10 season run on Broadway, has captured the attention of local critics and theatergoers alike.

Beyond the warning of the play’s title, there are additional signs to proceed with caution; due to Mamet’s contractual stipulations, there are no talkbacks following performances (perhaps to circumvent any overly spirited dialogues among the audience). But by the play’s end, you may be convinced it is to limit any discussion of the numerous holes in the plot.

It seems that Mamet is an adherent to the adage that art should serve to provoke thought, discussion and change; and he has done so successfully. He hits nearly every hot button topic that we avoid in polite conversation in mixed company: sex, gender roles, class, position, greed, privilege and race.

The intimate confines of the lower level Henry Heymann Theatre lends itself to the set consisting of a well-appointed conference room of a prominent top-shelf law firm.

Three members of a law firm, one White, two African-American, must decide whether or not they should represent a rich White male who has been charged with the rape of a Black woman.

Like fat cats toying with a desperate mouse in an initial interview, they send him out of the conference room to discuss whether to take him on. At this point the play takes on the arrogance of every big-time law firm situational seen on television (think “Boston Law”) as well as transcripts of more annoying “trials of the century” i.e. Caylee Anthony or O.J. Simpson; high stakes, high profile and excessive doses of smug posturing and righteous indignation.

This could easily be titled “People Behaving Badly” because nearly every stereotype and crass, base assumption is thrown in the discussion in the guise of trial strategy. In fact, it can be rather difficult to find any redeemable quality in any of four characters to make them likeable.

The salvation of “Race” is in the performances of the actors. The signature rapid-fire dialogue of Mamet’s pompous script could easily be a death trap for lesser actors; such complexity of manipulation is deliciously delivered by John DeMita (Jack Lawson) and Alan Bomar Jones (Henry Brown) as principals of the law firm.

As rich defendant Charles Strickland, Michael Fuller hits all the right notes as a victim of his social circumstance. And Casiha Felt is every inch the aspiring young associate of the firm who could be an asset or a liability in the case.

Recent real events make “Race” difficult to pass up, and director Andrew S. Paul (also PICT co-founder and artistic director) uses the pace of the dialogue to guide and aide his actors in overcoming the inconsistencies in the script. “Race” is also an adherent to the “by any needs necessary” school so if the premise is wide enough to overrun gapping holes in the plot, it’s okay because if it triggers the dialogue; and that it does.

Just don’t look for any tidy resolutions.

(Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre’s production of “Race” continues through Oct. 1 at the Henry Heymann Theatre in the Stephen Foster Memorial, 4301 Forbes in Oakland. For ticket information and performance times, call 412-394-3353 or visit http://www.picttheatre.org.)

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