WATERTOWN — You know a play by David Mamet titled “Race” isn’t going to pull any punches. But this law-office drama, which opened on Broadway in 2009, puts more than racial prejudice on trial. It goes after sexism and legal ethics as well, and it contains echoes of Mamet’s 1992 play “Oleanna.” The New Repertory Theatre’s production of “Race,” now up at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, doesn’t close all of Mamet’s loopholes, but director Robert Walsh and the four cast members do make a powerful case to the audience.
The setup is simple enough. Charles Strickland, who’s rich, powerful, and white, has been charged with raping a black woman. As “Race” opens, Charles is trying to get attorneys Jack Lawson, who’s white, and Henry Brown, who’s black, to take his case. Also present is Susan (no last name), a young black woman who’s a junior member of the firm. Over an intermissionless 90 minutes, Charles talks about guilt and innocence, Jack and Henry talk about black and white and how to win a racially sensitive case, and Susan makes some not-so-innocent phone calls. By the end, the lawyers are as frustrated as they were at the beginning, and no closer to the truth.
There’s no want of anger in “Race,” and the expletives fly freely. What this muted Mamet effort lacks is shock value. It’s no longer news that attorneys might be more interested in how they can sway a jury than in what their client actually did. And in the wake of the O. J. Simpson trial, no one will be surprised to learn that racial perceptions and prejudices might be as important as evidence. What is surprising is that Jack and Henry seem so uninterested in the alleged victim (who’s not named and never appears), even though she has taken “presents” from Charles, and her testimony in court would surely be crucial to the outcome, one way or the other. Instead, Jack seizes on the woman’s red sequined dress: She claims Charles ripped it off, but the police report shows no sequins on the floor. You can imagine Jack’s address to the jury: “If the sequins didn’t flit, you must acquit.” He doesn’t actually say that in the play, but there are plenty of comic one-liners. Expletives aside, watching “Race” is not an uncomfortable experience. Perhaps it wasn’t meant to be.
Janie E. Howland’s set is a model of sleek elegance: black leather sofa and chairs, potted palm, newspapers and Starbucks cups on the coffee table, a decanter and glasses on a stand, blue light (designed by Scott Pinkney) filtering through the vertically louvered blinds. The acting too is sleek, and the exchanges are rapid-fire. Patrick Shea’s Charles is both naive and entitled, professing innocence but also racked by guilt — whether specific or general is hard to say. Cliff Odle is a commanding Henry, equal parts cuddly and calculating.
Charles and Henry are the fixed points of “Race”; Jack and Susan are the variables. Ken Cheeseman is a lanky, cynical Jack whose motives in hiring Susan come under scrutiny — as do her motives for accepting the position. Miranda Craigwell’s Susan is a tough professional who suggests a degree of nastiness that’s suppressed in everyone else. When she and Jack square off at the end, “Race” starts to tell us, for the first time, something we didn’t know already.