Melinda Schupmann Reviews - Theater

A David Mamet play is always cerebral, generally provocative, and often leads one to debate issues raised in the storyline at the conclusion of the production. Moreover, its craftsmanship is to be admired.

This play purports to be about race, and it is, but it also examines  issues of gender and conscience. It places four characters in a handsome law office (scenic design by Jeffery P. Eisenmann) and delivers a story that unfolds layer by layer.

Jack Lawson (Chris Bauer) and his partner Henry Brown (Dominic Hoffman) are interviewing a prospective client, Charles Strickland (Jonno Roberts), who has been charged with rape. He is white and his victim is black, exactly the makeup of the two lawyers. Also in the office is a young black woman, Susan (DeWanda Wise), who appears to be listening to the byplay, at first on the sidelines, but as the play progresses she figures more prominently in the narrative.

Strickland is prominent and wealthy, a fact that affords him the luxury  of choosing these prominent lawyers. Is he guilty? Do we care? Are we more interested in the evolution of the problem rather than the tricky moral issues? That may be the disconnect that makes this play a bit hollow. In only a few spots are there any passionate moments.

Mamet is a master of trenchant dialogue meant to be delivered in a crisp, sometimes witty manner. This play is no exception, and there are some great lines-- not revealed here for fear of spoiling the dramatic impact.

As much as one hopes for  vintage Mamet--Glengarry Glen Ross, Speed-the-Plow--this falls short, even though it has elements that could elevate it given more dramatic charisma.

Bauer delivers a strong and effective central character, a mixture of enterprising self-assuredness, leadership, and ambition. Hoffman's character, largely neglected by Mamet, still manages to flesh out his character as effectively as the play allows.

On the minus side, director Scott Zigler has his work cut out for him trying to make Strickland and Susan more than one-dimensional. We are on alert from the start that Susan is going to gum up the works in a room full of men. While Susan feels herself a victim, she is oddly restrained even after the turn of events that places her front and center. Though she is purported to be a lawyer, she feels more like a dramatic contrivance. Interestingly, Mamet names his male character fully, but Susan is not given that distinction.

On balance, the play is engaging and is as topical as today’s newspaper. The playwright has the opportunity to create a microcosm in which the human condition is examined. In that sense, it is a worthy endeavor.

Race at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd. Culver City. Tues-Sat at 8. Sun at 2 and 8. $25-55. Tickets at www.centertheatregroup.org.