Arts & Events

Eye from the Aisle: Race, Rape, Truth, Mamet—90 compelling minutes at A.C.T.

By John A. McMullen II
Sunday October 30, 2011 - 12:31:00 PM
Anthony Fusco, Susan Heyward, Chris Butler, Kevin O’Rourke
Kevin Berne
Anthony Fusco, Susan Heyward, Chris Butler, Kevin O’Rourke

About 20 years ago, I was walking with my girlfriend down 2nd Avenue in NYC. I looked up and saw “Final Preview Tonight --Mamet’s OLEANNA.” They had two tickets left. It was about a college professor opening up to his working class student in private, mandated lectures with an undercurrent of intimacy and her cataclysmic reaction. William Macy and Rebecca Pidgeon on a spare set with her husband’s inflammatory words. At the end of the play, couples were shrieking at one another in the lobby and into the street.  

A few years before, I’d seen Speed-the-Plow with Joe Mantegna, Ron Silver, and Madonna. It was about a couple of “old whores”—that’s how Mamet has these movie producers refer to themselves. They are in it for the money instead of the art and will assume the position if they think it will benefit their career. Enter a hot, young office temp who can’t find the coffee. The older movie producer opens up to the young woman and gets manipulated and loses his balance; his underling saves his skin, points out his weakness, and replaces him as alpha dog. 

It’s only with this third go-round in using this tried-and-all-too-true formula in RACE now at A.C.T., that I recognized this plot pattern of female rage in the pursuit of retribution masquerading as justice and goaded by the weakness and hubris of the man in power. In this version, r-a-c-e is thrown into the mix. Change the “c” to a “p,” and we just raised the stakes. It’s about the rape of a black woman by a white man, something that doesn’t occur much these days according to DOJ statistics. Everybody gets caught up by a theatrical story about rape—Anatomy of a Murder, The Accused, Death Wish, Straw Dogs, Thelma & Louise, Extremities. I remember that in my grad directing workshop, we had to bring in “a scene that sustained tension” and 5 of 7 scenes were about rape.  

IN SHORT: Mamet has a cuttingly truthful if bleak view of our society now and of human nature generally. This play propels us like good movie—by which I mean that every second is rife with throbbing tension and seamlessly segues into the next. After all, he wrote the screenplays for The Postman Always Ring Twice, the Untouchables, and The Verdict. Ninety uninterrupted minutes at the ACT flew by. This one is not to be missed, with an extraordinary cast, and staging so simple in an expansive law office setting with subtle lighting change. The plot, the words, and the acting sweep you along. 

Two legal whores—idealism gone, in it for the money—one white, one black—think that between them they have their fingers on the pulse of our society and all its racial implications, and with their version of the truth about race they can shock and awe any client into hiring them or any jury into acquitting. 

Mamet knows how banal our society is, how prejudiced and suggestible our citizens are, how our adversarial justice system is riven with lies and manufactured evidence by both sides, about how money is everything. He knows that the attorney who is the best entertainer and who can misdirect the jury’s attention like a David Copperfield is the one who wins regardless of his client’s culpability, e.g., “If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit.” He knows that 400 years of institutionalized rape of black women during slavery without consequence will out (add the shame of being forced into prostitution by racism and economic desperation). He knows that the answer to the question, “What can a white man say to a black man about race?” is, tersely and simply, “Nothing.” He knows that black people distrust white people for very good and long-established reasons. He knows about the guilt of the whites and the shame of the blacks. Then he has the white lawyer pronounce and agree with all those principles, and proceed to violate all of them— to a woman, a black woman, in a way that is so subtly flirtatious that you cannot articulate what it is, but you just know—much to the credit of the writing and Anthony Fusco’s acting. 

Mamet lets you walk in the shoes of each of the characters in a world where betrayal and the struggle for power is the rule. Once the veneer is removed, “red in tooth and claw” is as palpable in the civility of a well-decorated office as it was on the plains of the Serengeti when we first set up shop there. 

The ensemble of Susan Heyward as the new hire, Chris Butler as the bullshit-proof African-American partner, and Kevin O’Rourke as the accused, guilt-ridden, rich white man is superb. The simple staging and directorial hand of Irene Fisher is unnoticeable, which is a high compliment. 

As a Law and Order: SVU aficionado, I wanted the DNA evidence: vaginal tearing, scratch-marks, bruising. Given the circumstances (which I won’t spoil), it is interesting that charges weren’t dismissed--but Mamet points out that the rules are different for the rich when it comes to prosecution and the press. But that’s just an afterthought. Throughout the play, the mind reels with the cascade of ideas, outspoken truths we all feel even if we’re ashamed of them, and rich language. But then I’m a Mamet-lover, regardless of his new-found Conservatism. 

RACE by David Mamet plays at American Conservatory Theatre through November 13. / 415.749.2228 

Directed by Irene Lewis. Chris Barreca (scenic designer), Cliff Caruthers (sound designer), Candice Donnelly (costume designer), Rui Rita (lighting designer), Kimberly Mark Webb (stage manager) 

WITH: Chris Butler (Henry Brown), Anthony Fusco (Jack Lawson), Susan Heyward (Susan), and Kevin O’Rourke (Charles Strickland) 


John A. McMullen is a member of SFBATCC, ATCA, SDC. Edited by E J Dunne.