David Mamet’s Race, now playing in a powerful, professional production at Northern Stage, lays down a challenge: Arrive with an open mind, then learn how closed it really is.
In a law firm’s conference room, a rich white man, Charles, seeks legal representation after being accused of raping a black woman. The two male attorneys — Henry, who’s black; and Jack, who’s white — are not eager to take the high-profile case, but they are lightning-quick to demonstrate how truth is irrelevant and perception is everything. It’s a lesson they also seem bent on teaching newly hired Susan, a young black woman fresh from an Ivy League education.
And so Mamet launches his observations on race from an elegant and well-constructed framework. Using a legal setting makes judgment central. But judgment may contain deep-seated self-deception, because facts are more likely marshaled into place to affirm a belief than to reach a fair conclusion. Preoccupied with winning, these attorneys are less keen on serving a client than on brutally assessing how evidence can be manipulated. The legal system renders shame and guilt public, while a law office is like a courtroom’s backstage, where arguments receive their first trial.
Race is not the play’s only topic. Three polarizing dynamics are at work here: black/white, rich/poor and male/female. Each has the power to shape beliefs.
On the male-female axis, Mamet skillfully explores how we’re individually predisposed to view rape. It’s a crime of violence, but also of communication and intent, and there’s no forensic trace of those. Into that vacuum fly presumptions, crowding out facts. For some people (mostly women), a charge of rape must be true, because what woman would risk degradation to lie? For other people (mostly men), women want to have it both ways — to tease and consent and then to punish. All of us are inclined toward one of these views; rape is a story we know in advance.
Mamet’s fervent despair about humanity is unleashed through acerbic speech as lawyers and client construct walls of words that are more about power than justice. These are characters who never doubt themselves; each suffers from the need to be the smartest person in the room. The intellectual sheen of the play is intoxicating and stimulating; ideas explode like fireworks. But viewers should be prepared for a vigorous 90-minute journey, without intermission. Race demands intense concentration from the audience as well as the actors.
Director Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill’s vision is true to key Mamet tenets: Sentimentalize nothing, show characters burying emotion and let naturalistic language lead. She establishes an exhilarating pace and allows the energy of the ensemble to supply the drama. This is no whodunit, and there’s no conventional, plot-based tension because Mamet scrupulously leaves every action ambiguous. The conflict hinges on how people deceive themselves. With keen attention to Mamet’s musical dialogue, Mancinelli-Cahill conducts a quartet. Each note is sounded and left ringing until we reach a final chord. What’s resolved is not the question of race but the melody of Mamet’s ruminations on the subject.
The play premiered on Broadway in 2009, in a production that Mamet himself directed. Race is now in its first regional release, and Northern Stage’s polished production delivers nuance and intensity. The actors, all members of the Equity Actors Association, are superb at bringing the playwright’s vision and dialogue wto life.
As Jack, Timothy Deenihan maintains a coiled energy that reveals his character’s immense will to control. Quick to parry and always ready to thrust, Deenihan has a fencer’s finesse and makes every move look effortless. His elegant physical presence, matched with Mamet’s cunning, renders Jack the kind of beautiful and terrifying creation that’s riveting to behold. Deenihan delivers Mamet’s naturalistic dialogue brilliantly.
Kevin Craig West gives Henry the supreme confidence of knowing exactly what he believes and where the white world will set limits on him. The ace up his sleeve is that he can outthink what he can’t outrun. His operatic deposition on the state of race relations ends with a flourish. “What can you say to a black man about race?” he asks. “Nothing,” client Charles knows enough to answer. West plays Henry as a man using likability to mask fury. His abundant charm soothes but leaves one wary of the anger beneath.
As Charles, Wynn Harmon quietly oscillates between impervious hauteur and regret. Mamet’s steadfast ambiguity about the character’s guilt or innocence leaves Harmon the difficult task of carving a convincing ice sculpture, for no soul will emerge inside. When Charles realizes that his black college pal may have hated him all along, Harmon gives a delicate shiver and nothing more. The restraint is perfect. For Mamet, revelation has no power to transform.
Shelley Thomas plays the protean Susan by allowing every facet of the character to glisten equally. Is she a sociopath or a heroine? An underestimated grandmaster who manages to checkmate Jack, or an innocent incompetent who knocks over the chessboard? Thomas nurses all of Mamet’s ambiguities and never allows one overriding interpretation to emerge.
Ken Goldstein’s set is a majestic display of power, in keeping with what’s at stake here for lawyers and client. The opulent conference room is a sanctuary with floor-to-ceiling law books, hardwood flooring and a burnished conference table that conveys the serene rewards of wealth. The lighting, by Deborah Constantine, establishes mood unobtrusively and contributes to neat scene transitions.
Carolyn Walker’s costumes are note-perfect. There’s just enough bravado in the black lawyer’s suit, just enough opulence in the client’s; a dare-you red tie for the white lawyer and a double-dare-you red and black ensemble for the female lawyer.
It’s Mamet’s confrontational style to include adult language. It’s used to artistic effect here but may offend some.
The play is beautifully constructed, and audiences may find themselves reviewing its layers for a long time after leaving the theater. A subtle undertone of the rape story echoes, for instance, in white-male- employer Jack’s treatment of black-female-employee Susan. Us-versus-them thinking emerges everywhere. Mamet is neither kind nor hopeful, but he does a remarkable job of listening to the world and reporting.
"Race" by David Mamet, directed by Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill, coproduced by Northern Stage and Capital Repertory Theatre. Through March 24. Tuesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 5 p.m. Thursday, March 14, at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Briggs Opera House, White River Junction. $15-60. Info, 296-7000. northernstage.org 
The print version of this article was headlined "Believing is Seeing".