*Race* review (at Interplayers)
at Interplayers through April 16
In its union of insightful script, well-practiced directing and subtle acting, Race represents just about the best of Spokane-area (non-musical) theater.
Take an early moment: Two defense lawyers — one black, one white — are deciding whether to take on the case of a mega-rich white man accused of raping a black woman. The black partner (David Casteal) points out to the alleged rapist (Patrick Treadway) that black people will be thrilled that he’s guilty — but not simply because he’s white. “No. Because of the calendar,” Henry explains. “Fifty years ago. You’re white? Same case. Same facts. You’re innocent.”
From “he can’t be convicted of it” to “he definitely did it”: in half a century, we’ve traveled from black oppression to white guilt.
The rich guy, Charles, he’s trapped by his social class and skin color. Public opinion and the legal system are stacked against him. That’s so unfair.
And at that point, you could just sense the opening-night audience — mostly white, middle-class, middle-aged, comfortably established — start to shift in their seats. So unfair.
Henry delivers another smackdown to Charles: “And p.s. I don’t like all this bullshit about the world is treating you unfairly, as it also treated you unfairly when you were born to wealth, but I don’t believe that you complained then.”
Let’s see now — people lining up against you because of your race, social class, gender. Welcome to what it’s like to be a working-class black woman.
The audience got very quiet. And then Treadway, who had been seated, back to the audience, in the interrogation seat (it’s usually important in a David Mamet play, who’s sitting, who’s standing, who just got told to sit down and who did the telling) turned to the audience, lifted his chin, and made his face take the brunt of Justin Schmidt’s full-glare lighting.
Soon after, Marilyn Langbehn’s direction capitalizes on the script’s metatheatrical opportunities by having Kevin Partridge (as the white lawyer, the James Spader role in last year’s Broadway run) turn to one-third of the thrust-stage audience, addressing us, directly implicating us as if we are jurors seated in judgment. And here we were thinking that race and gender relations are workable, that the law is actually dedicated to something so unprofitable as the pursuit of truth and justice.
For this thoughtful, sometimes startling, always engaging production, let’s get some criticisms out of the way. It’s not elegant-looking enough. These are people of privilege, and it needs to look polished, which is beyond Interplayers’ current capabilities. The production’s not polished yet, either, in terms of memorization or pace: Aside from line-wobbles, junctures that need some air in order to register are being rushed past in the actors’ urgency to shoot through all that rat-a-tat-tat David Mamet-speak. And will someone please take in the sides of Treadway’s suit jacket? Because he’s swimming in it, and no wealthy man has that bad a tailor.
But there’s much else to admire: Langbehn’s choice to keep actors nearly motionless amid the flying accusations of the opening sequence, spotlighting the words. At various junctures, multiple forms of shame and guilt wash over the characters. Partridge’s lowered brow of false concern, the way he peers over his glasses with guile, the way he hunkers over Charles just before delivering a good psychological skewering. Casteal, acting too much with his hands early on, becoming a crowd favorite with his sassy, call-and-response-rhythm put-downs. (You can sense how Henry has blended the streets and the law school.)
As the partners’ new associate, Nike Imoru returns to the Interplayers stage — a gazelle about to pounce, arms back, legs ready to spring like pogo sticks right out of her professional-office-attire-but-still-provocative high heels. In the final act, Imoru flashes her stately, glaring, accusatory eyes — a sharp contrast to her submissive, steno-pad-scribbling secretary’s demeanor in the early going. By that point, Partridge’s Jack, reduced to nervous stuttering, has lost most of his swagger. The power balance has shifted, and with it our attitudes about law, race, gender, ourselves, our social position.
Whites oppressed blacks, and now blacks assume that every white person will continue to do the same. And they do, Mamet suggests, even if only subconsciously. That’s just the way it is, Bruce Hornsby sang, and we are all caught in a cycle of mutual distrust.
Like the electricity that crackled around this theater back in 1994 when it produced the abortion drama Keely and Du, Race has the potential to alter some people’s thinking and break the cycle.