David Mamet doesn't make things easy on himself.
Take "Race," his keen 2009 courtroom drama that opened this week at the Goodman Theatre. In it, Mamet takes on racial and gender politics, class and the legal system to examine the prejudices -- not to mention the shame and guilt -- which the play suggests color every exchange between people not of the same ethnicity.
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"Race"★ ★ ★ ½
Location: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago, (312) 443-3800, goodmantheatre.org
Showtimes: 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday; 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday through Feb. 19. No 7:30 p.m. shows Jan. 31, Feb. 12 and 19. No 2 p.m. shows Jan. 28 and Feb. 16.
Running time: about 100 minutes, with intermission
Parking: Pay garages nearby; discounted parking with validation at the Government Center Self Park, at the corner of Clark and Lake streets
Rating: Mature themes, strong language; suitable for adults
That's quite an undertaking. Yet Mamet manages. In fact, he manages quite well, with trademark wit and intellectual rigor that -- in the right hands -- makes for arresting theater.
Fortunately, Goodman's enormously entertaining Chicago-area premiere is in the very capable hands of director Chuck Smith, whose unrelenting, whip-smart production boasts a savvy ensemble led by the superb Marc Grapey -- the perfect embodiment of the classic Mamet alpha male -- who picked up tips on lawyerly demeanor from recently retired Cook County Assistant Public Defender Jim Mullenix. Equally impressive is Grapey's co-star Geoffrey Owens, whose fierce, funny, brutally blunt performance should eclipse any memories of his tenure as Elvin on "The Cosby Show."
The action unfolds in the offices of legal eagles and longtime law partners Jack Lawson (an assured, deliberate performance from Grapey), who is Caucasian, and Henry Brown (Owens, rock-solid as a man with no illusions), who is black. They have recently hired as their associate a black Ivy League grad named Susan (played by the cool, collected Tamberla Perry).
Susan observes while Jack and Henry interview a potential client around the conference table of their converted loft offices, and Linda Buchanan's contemporary set suggests a thriving, off-Loop practice that has not yet achieved the status of the LaSalle Street and Wacker Drive megafirms.
Charles Strickland (a guileless, appropriately overwhelmed Patrick Clear) is a wealthy, white man charged with sexually assaulting a young black woman in a hotel room. The married, middle-aged Strickland insists he and the woman had a romantic relationship and that the sex was consensual.
That one law firm has already passed on representing Strickland suggests to the partners, especially Henry, that the man hasn't been entirely forthcoming and that his omissions could torpedo his defense. Moreover, both men suspect the case is unwinnable. However, when a mistake forces them to take Strickland on, they begin to question their initial assumptions.
In a 2010 interview with talk-show host Charlie Rose, Mamet described the play as "a tragedy about race."
That it is. But it's not a perfect tragedy. Mamet offers no new insights and the conclusion comes as no surprise. You'll see it coming, especially if you've seen "Oleanna" or "Speed-the-Plow."
But "Race" is smart, deftly crafted, funny and -- when it comes to its assessment of courtroom drama -- spot-on. Difficult as it is to admit, its assessment that race dominates our daily lives may not be too far off. The sentiment is best expressed by Lawson, whose long and careful consideration of the subject leads him to conclude that race "is the most incendiary topic in our history and the moment it comes out, you cannot close the lid on that box. That may change. But not for a long time."
Cynicism underscores "Race." It's apparent in the play's opening shot, a cringe-inducing riff on black stereotypes from Henry that sets audiences on their heels. Then comes the second wave, in which Henry challenges Strickland, saying, "Do you know what you can say? To a black man. On the subject of race?"
The question is rhetorical, but of course the answer is "nothing."
But for all that, "Race" doesn't surrender to cynicism. Mamet -- in a casual observation delivered by Henry -- suggests that a solution to the problem exists.
"We all have to put up with a lot from each other," he says.
If only we would.