RACE by David Mamet (Canadian Stage). At the Bluma Appel (27 Front East). Runs to May 5. $24-$99. 416-368-3110, canadianstage.com..
Having seen the gripping drama THIS, I thought Canadian Stage was on a roll. Then I watched Race and the good times ground to a halt. Not only is the play a mess, but star Jason Priestley can’t hold his own against vastly superior actors.
Charles Strickland (Matthew Edison), a wealthy white man, enlists a defence firm consisting of two partners – Jack (Priestley), who’s white, and Henry (Nigel Shawn Williams), who’s black – and new hire Susan (Cara Ricketts), also black, to defend him against the charge that he raped a black woman.
How could David Mamet, who specializes in the incendiary, create something so lukewarm? Almost nothing happens, and the stakes remain pathetically low. It’s really just an excuse for the shit-disturbing playwright to say provocative things about race, yet there isn’t a single line in the play that makes you gasp. It almost makes you yearn for Mamet’s misogyny. At least Oleanna had a narrative arc.
Race has zero character development, and almost every element of the premise – set out in the first scene – is ridiculous, starting with Jack’s statement that taking the case is a lose-lose proposition. If Strickland’s found guilty, it’s bad for the firm if not guilty, it’s bad for the brand.
As if. Anyone who saw John Rosen defend Paul Bernardo, or the newspaper photo of Brian Greenspan grinning alongside his client George Doodnaught, the anaesthesiologist accused of sexually assaulting female patients, knows that lawyers who take on slimy clients thrive quite nicely.
As for Susan, everything that happens to her suggests an impossible naivete. Is she surprised that they want a black woman on the case? How can she not know that for decades female lawyers have known full well why they’re asked to defend rape defendants?
In the emotional turning point, such as it is, Jack asks her to participate in the trial in a way that pisses her off. A real pro, even a young one, would have said, “Will do.” In using her as a tool for his own weak commentary on race relations, Mamet trivializes the character, making her appear to know nothing about the profession she’s entering.
Ricketts does what she can in a thankless role, and Edison gives Strickland that great combination of anger and entitlement.
But director Daniel Brooks has to know that when Priestley plays against Williams, he’s hopelessly overpowered. Williams has great timing and can hold your attention without raising his voice. Priestley’s diction is terrible, and he struggles through the longer speeches, changing his inflection only occasionally.
The show looks great thanks to designer Debra Hanson – snappy charcoal-grey suits – and the action centres on a long table in a smart all-white office. Occasionally, the characters leave the room via a door at the back of the set and you think something will happen when they return.
Too bad they come back with nothing.
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