New Rep’s ‘Race’ careens to a fiery finish

WATERTOWN — Intensity, thy name is David Mamet.
So what else would you expect when the famed playwright takes on the explosive issue of race relations in the New Repertory Theatre’s production of “Race,” now at the Mosesian Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts.

From the left, Ken Cheeseman, Miranda Craigwell, Cliff Odle and Patrick
Shea in New Rep’s “Race.” Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures

An excellent cast breathes fiery life into Mamet’s tale of a wealthy white man accused of raping a black woman, and the toll that the case takes on the members of the law firm that becomes involved in it.
During its 90 minutes, “Race,” covers the full length and breath of race-related issues, wealth and privilege, race and class bias, and the inborn prejudices held by many whites and blacks.
Charles Strickland (Patrick Shea) is a wealthy white man who is being accused of rape by a young black woman with whom he has had an ongoing relationship.
He has just left the office of a prominent attorney who has decided not to take his case when he enters the office of a small law firm owned by a white lawyer, Jack Lawson, and his black partner, Henry Brown (Cliff Odle), who also have on staff a young black female lawyer named Susan (Miranda Craigwell).
Strickland loudly proclaims his innocence and demands that Jack and Henry take his case, but they ask Strickland to leave the room while they discuss the situation.
If they lose what will be a very prominent case, it would cast doubt on the competence of the firm.
If they win, they could — as a racially-diverse law firm — be seen aiding a wealthy white man in abusing a young black woman.
Just when they have decided that the case if not for them, the issue becomes moot. Susan has made several seemingly inexplicable legal errors that resulted in the firm becoming attorneys of record on the case.
Still, Jack seems to have found a hole in the prosecution’s case that will allow Strickland to eventually go free until…
Shea is fine as Strickland, who harbors other dirty little secrets that will complicate the situation.
Cheeseman is superb as the cynical lawyer Jack, who appears worldly-wise about dealing with race and at least outwardly upstanding in his dealings with both his partner and his young associate.
Odle as Henry is proud of what he has built with Jack, but suspicious of Jack’s motives in hiring Susan, something he wasn’t in favor of.
Susan early on informs her bosses she believes Strickland to be guilty. Will her beliefs color her actions, and how can she be part of an effort to set free a man she believes to be guilty of a brutal crime against a fellow black woman?
Director Robert Walsh keeps ratcheting up the tension as, one by one, the characters’ masks are ripped off and all sense of decorum and decency are lost as they confront their prejudices.
“Race” finds Mamet at perhaps his most intense and harrowing since his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Glengarry Glen Ross.”
Mamet’s characters would never be allowed to tiptoe through the tulips and here are allowed to say what many people think, but don’t say. Mamet lays it all out there for us to consider in a blunt, brutal, raw, often profane, provocative and powerful way, with crackling dialogue.
“Race” may titularly be a comedy, but is definitely not for the squeamish and those easily offended. Mamet drives the car right into the wall, and leaves it to the theater-goer to pick up the pieces afterwards.
The New Repertory Theatre’s production of David Mamet’s “Race,” through Nov. 4 at the Mosesian Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown. Directed by Robert Walsh. For tickets, call 617 923-8487 or go to www.newrep.org.

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