‘Race’ at the Living Room is a provocative example of hard-nosed drama

03/29/2014 12:04 PM

03/29/2014 12:04 PM

Certain sections of the Living Production of David Mamet’s “Race” are utterly absorbing. The dialogue crackles, the ideas are cogent and a good cast makes the most of the material. You feel like you’re feasting on vintage Mamet.

At other times this 2009 drama, in which tropes and assumptions about race are exchanged against the internal politics of a law firm, devolves into an exchange of generalities that may or may not reflect the author’s attitudes about racial divisions in America.

The Living Room production, directed by Rusty Sneary, captures solid performances from a talented cast. Forrest Attaway and Damron Russel Armstrong are expansively entertaining as law partners — one white, the other black — while Chioma Anyanwu makes a chilly impression as a young African-American attorney recently hired by the firm. Tim Ahlenius delivers an understated performance as a wealthy white man accused of raping a black woman.

Jack Lawson (Attaway) and Henry Brown (Armstrong) discuss the merits of representing Charles Strickland (Ahlenius), who has already been “fired” by one law firm. Mamet gives Jack mesmerizing, intricate speeches in which he articulates what he believes to be the reality of the legal system: It’s not about justice, it’s about manipulating the thoughts and emotions of the jury.

Brown is given a fair number of speeches as well. He dissects how whites generally perceive African-Americans and at times takes an unflinching look at how blacks view each other.

The ever-increasing pile of evidence sways Jack and Henry — and the audience — first one way, then another. Strickland appears guilty, then maybe not, but additional revelations point back to his guilt.

Susan (Anyanwu) is the cryptic wild card in the drama. Treated in a condescending manner by both Lawson and Brown, she quietly asserts her power by committing the firm to Strickland’s case through a technical legal “error.” It becomes increasingly clear that Susan has an agenda of her own.

A lengthy exchange between Jack and Susan is the most absorbing of the play. Attaway and Anyanwu are equally skilled fencing opponents and the actors’ work is impressively precise. The charismatic Armstrong at times seems to be performing in a different play. His performance eventually settles down a bit but in the early going he’s an overly broad, almost operatic presence. Ahlenius is commendably low key as he squirms beneath the scrutiny of the lawyers.

One reality that cannot be ignored is pretty basic: Mamet is a white writer taking it upon himself to create black characters expressing complicated attitudes about the subject at hand. That doesn’t invalidate the enterprise, but it does underscore Mamet’s choice to create constructs rather than characters.

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