Review: Gulfshore Playhouse wins 'Race' for buzz with riveting Mamet drama

David Albers/Staff
- Actors rehearse the Gulfshore Playhouse's production of David Mamet's drama 'Race' with at the Norris Center on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012, in Naples. The play follows a law firm taking on a racially-charged case. The production runs Jan. 27 through Feb. 12. at the Norris Center.

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David Albers/Staff - Actors rehearse the Gulfshore Playhouse's production of David Mamet's drama "Race" with at the Norris Center on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2012, in Naples. The play follows a law firm taking on a racially-charged case. The production runs Jan. 27 through Feb. 12. at the Norris Center.

What: David Mamet play about a law firm faced with a difficult case

When: 8 p.m. through Saturday, Feb. 12. Additional 3 p.m. matinée showings on Saturdays and Sundays.

Where: Norris Community Center, 755 Eighth Ave. S., Naples

Cost: Tickets start at $35, $15 for students

Information: 866-811-4111 or gulfshoreplayhouse.org

Something Else: Dialogue contains many racial and sexual profanities

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Gulfshore Playhouse dove into the discussion about race in America Friday night. David Mamet's searing cannonball of a play "Race," with unsayable words, unthinkable deeds and shocking twists burns across the stage. You'll watch, stare and gasp. You'll also laugh. And you'll leave thinking.

Mamet wrote "Race" in 2009. The play examines the case of a white man accused of raping a black woman; he asks a firm with a white lawyer and a black lawyer to represent him. James Spader and David Alan Grier starred in the Broadway production.

Let's get a few things out of the way. The plentiful profanity adds spice, but proves ultimately unimportant (and quite possibly distracting). "Race," for all that it tosses around the n-word like a politician making campaign promises, isn't about race. While the play is set in a law office, neither is it about law.

So what is it about? Perception. Power. The play comes down to how people perceive one another - and then how they act on those presumption. Only the naive should believe that trials are about finding justice - they're about creating a narrative - a version of truth for the jury to believe. "Race" hammers that point home again and again - and turns a black-and-white play into endless shades of gray. In those shades of gray are plot threads about power, truth, lies, trust, honor and shame.

The script, frankly, may divide audiences. While the work comes alive on stage in a way it doesn't on the page, literary types who demand nice, compact endings and clean, rounded-off plot lines may go mad. "Race" throws a lot of messy material against the wall - not to see if it sticks - but to make us ponder.

"Race" whizzes by in a flurry of accusations, curse words and legal strategies, leaving the audience buzzing. Only later do they start to pick apart the dozens of subtleties that made for a riveting 75 minutes of theater.

Director Kristen Coury has said that she views Mamet as "Shakespearean" - and wants to direct the work that way. The Mamet dialogue - which resembles how real people talk - tends to defy that even if the grand sweeps of characters, actions and deeds can lend that impression. For me, the show feels like the frenzied circus-like atmosphere of a trial - with lawyers "performing" for the audience (the jury). The explicit comparison is even made in the dialogue and the staging.

Notice some of the delicacies that might go unremarked upon - like how Mamet, even as he tries to sidestep race as an issue, defines power throughout the play. There's a hierarchy among the characters - notice who gives orders to whom (and what color they are) - that speaks volumes.

Coury wants audiences to notice the play's shadings - but not beat them over the head with it. While "Race" is tense and at times angry, she does her best to focus the show's sprawling themes.

Her cast of professionals doesn't stray into over-acting, histrionics or scenery chewing. This isn't, after all, television where lawyers growl at the judge, scream at everybody and throw papers about the room - it's theater. Don't make the mistake of wishing this were an scream-and-moan episode of "The Good Wife" - its far better for being more subtle.

One of the notable tricks that Coury accomplishes is wringing some laughs from the dialogue. Her directing is purposeful, to the point and careful not to dwell on the shocking language.

Eric Hissom stands out as masterful legal mind Jack Lawson (the white lawyer - the name "Law-son" is unsubtle). His take the showy part brings to mind a barrister whipping a courtroom into a froth. Hissom dances about the stage, all quicksilver energy, flighty, bouncy and carefree. It suggests a person comfortable with himself - and with the world; that's what the character - a presumably wealthy adult Caucasian male - is supposed to represent.

Coury takes great pains not to let Jefferson A. Russell's portrayal of Henry Brown (the black lawyer) descend into "angry black man" stereotypes. He's the smart one in the room (notice the cute, nerdy bow tie) and his fire is directed at specific targets. Russell radiates a fierce intensity - every word is punctuated, even bitten off in anger - but doesn't let the performance drift into rage.

Within the play's deeper themes his Henry Brown (again, unsubtle) exists to refute what audiences think they know about race. Henry is the truth-teller - and the one who perceives the truth in people - be they black or white. When the character unearths a scheme to undo the case, Russell plays the moment wonderfully - staring, piercing, as if he's looking into another person's soul.

Brent Langdon makes the most of his scenes as Charles Strickland, the accused. He brings a perfect sense of entitlement and bewilderment to the character - an ultra-rich man caught sleeping with a black prostitute, who then accuses him of rape. Scenes where he's forced to confront his own - unrecognized - prejudices might be squirm-inducing, but they feel honest and reinforce the message of "perception is everything."

Edena Hines (Susan) perfects her character's blank cipher until the explosive finale. Just a law clerk, she's ultimately unmasked with a hidden agenda - and Hines rises to the occasion with fire in her eyes. Watch for the play's final image, which sees her standing at the center of the stage, hands outstretched as if she were Lady Justice, with Russell standing on one side and Hissom on the other.

Alok Wadhwani's luxurious law office set features a floor-to-ceiling "window," soaring bookshelves, exposed brickwork and rich furniture. These lawyers can clearly afford the best - and the office signals success. Subtle lighting designs keep the show from feeling harsh - and transition subtly through a period of hours. Anna Alex (sound) ends each of the scene with a bong that reminiscent to the "Law & Order" gong; the sound reinforces the legal nature of the show.

With just four characters and a limited palette, Jennifer Murray didn't get to experiment with fashion. Yet, she snuck in a bold green shirt, brown suit and bow tie for Russell. The unexpected choice underlines his character's place as a member of the establishment, yet still marks him as slightly daring, slightly different. Look for a touch of lilac on the vest when Hissom's character takes off his jacket. Look among the shelves for pops of color on the somber set - bold red glassware or white ceramics - or for the golden dragon atop one bookcase.

Do you think you know everything about race? You don't. Gulfshore Playhouse marries a good script with a better director and four solid actors to produce compelling theater. You'll leave the theater asking "What just happened?" - and that's a good thing. Run, don't walk to sign up for this "Race."

I'd win a race to the buffet! Email me, csilk@naplesnews.com, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.

© 2012 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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