Enter the American theater's favorite conservative convert, the new Roger Ailes of the Great White Way, only smarter and yet more determined to escape the confining pins of ideological definition. Mamet's Broadway play, "Race," which has arrived at the Goodman Theatre in a savvy Chuck Smith production, is one clever takedown of pious rhetoric, cautious action and the eviscerating racial guilt that passes for daily business in the sexual-political stew that makes up the daily American dance. Especially when it comes to law, sex, class and race.
"Race" was dismissed by many on Broadway as a minor Mamet play that lacked authorial fire. And, indeed, you could well imagine a writer of Mamet's talents knocking off this bit of juicy catnip for busy lawyers in a single day. Mamet can dream up procedural plots like this in his sleep — "Race" involves an interracial trio of scheming lawyers, two male partners and one female newbie, trying to figure out how to best defend an odious patriarch accused of raping a black woman in a hotel room. It probes similar territory to "Oleanna" (albeit with race and gender at its core) and it is not a work of great authorial challenge or self-revelation.
But a couple of notable things have happened since I saw "Race" on Broadway in 2009. The first is the messy, race-and-privilege-soaked case of one Dominique Gaston André Strauss-Kahn, whose alleged encounter with a chambermaid in a posh New York hotel so closely mirrors the apparent actions of Patrick Clear's feckless Charles in Mamet's play that you'd swear Mamet had written this piece in response to that real-life case in May 2011.
"No one has said no to him. In 40 years," remarks Marc Grapey's shrewd Jack, explaining to his partner Henry (Geoffrey Owens) why this appealingly rich and seemingly docile client could behave as ridiculously as he does, to the chagrin of lawyers who understand that life is an interplay of competing narratives. If this play appeared to stretch credibility in 2009, it now seems to reflect some of the less savory aspects of what money and power demonstrably can reap.
The second is that the Goodman has given the play a much better production, further reminding us that Mamet is not necessarily the best director of his own work. Smith, an unflashy director, dials back the technical audaciousness of that original production, adding more vulnerability to the very characters who seem to lack it in the script. The interplay of Chicago and Mamet is always to the great benefit of both, and Smith implicitly sets the work in a smaller Chicago law firm (the understated set is from Linda Buchanan), where the partners are more desperate, the surroundings a little less opulent, and the stakes both higher and more tawdry. It greatly serves the script.
Owens (whom some may recall from "The Cosby Show") is this production's most formidable weapon, not the least because he wages his battle on two fronts simultaneously. The one you see (and the only one we got on Broadway from David Alan Grier) was his character's acute understanding of how black and white folks interact and what they think of each other, and how this is not to be confused with what actually comes out of their mouth in public. But even as he is funny and forthright, Owens also reveals a certain subtext, a sense of unease with these American ways that deepens the play.
That works spectacularly well with Grapey's scheming Jack. Grapey, clearly in his Mametian element, smacks out Mamet's lines as if they were John McEnroe serves, with ugly human truths as their baseline target. He effects some shrewd variances in tone here — his character's rhetoric first drips in self-confidence, then retreats into humility, then veers on full-out panic, only to finally recover its swagger. Between these two formidable players, Clear's deliciously weak client can only watch as the balls of his fate shoot over his own uncomprehending head.
It's not always easy for Tamberla Perry, playing Susan, the true wild card in this proceeding, to keep up, and there are times when you want her to show more teeth and sexual aggression. Why else would these men have hired her? But a hefty part of this character is biding her time until all the race-and-politics blowhards have blown themselves out like a politician at the end of a debate. Being a Mamet woman, only then does she strike.
When: Through Feb. 19
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $25-$89 at 312-443-3800 or goodmantheatre.org