Two Pulitzer-winning playwrights are tackling issues of race and class on local stages, one playwright uncannily mimicking, in a provocative and nuanced dramedy, the odd speech patterns of folks who seek to obfuscate with language, the other arguing mostly with himself in a schematic script that might generously be described as a polemic.
Guess which one is David Mamet.
Had I posed that question in the 1970s, ’80s, or ’90s, the linguistic provocateur would almost certainly have been the author of American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross, and Wag the Dog. Today, not so much—at least not in Race, a lawyerly dissertation on how ethnicity plays into issues of guilt and shame, which feels too tidy structurally even as it’s spitting out fusillades of Mametspeak.
David Lindsay-Abaire’s nuanced Good People, meanwhile, brims over with the sort of convivial, blunt blue-collar bonhomie that can turn corrosive in an instant. The play centers on Margie (Johanna Day) a plainspoken-to-a-fault single mom who loses her job largely because she must care for her disabled adult daughter. She thinks she spies a lifeline in Mike (Andrew Long), a high school fling she hasn’t seen in 30 years. He’s now a fertility doctor, recently returned to the hardscrabble South Boston neighborhood from which she never escaped. Her bingo-playing buddies urge her to hit him up for a job, so she visits his office, and it’s quickly clear she still knows how to push his buttons.
He’s been lucky in life, she notes, and is no longer a Southie; he’s worked hard, he replies, annoyed when she calls him “lace-curtain Irish.” Their conversation devolves into a verbal game of chicken, and even she’s not surprised when it does not result in a job offer. She does manage, however, to score an invitation to a party where she hopes to hit up his friends, by which time you may be feeling slightly sorry for Mike. Rest assured, that won’t last.
There aren’t really any good people in Good People, but there are some rattling good fights and a fascinating exploration of American notions of class—specifically, what the upwardly mobile owe the less-fortunate folks they’ve clambered over. And at the play’s final preview, Jackie Maxwell’s explosively funny, and then just plain explosive, production was brusquely making the social undertones resonate even as it showcased a stageful of rich, affecting performances—chief among them Long’s slow-burning but combustible Mike, Francesca Choy-Kee as Mike’s poised but insecure wife, and Day’s passive-aggressive, angry, vulnerable, empathetic trainwreck of a heroine—one you’ll root for and shrink from in about equal measure.
Race By David Mamet Directed by John Vreeke; At Theater J to March 17
No contemporary playwright can match David Mamet for turning the stuttering, naturalistic speech patterns of ordinary folks into a revealing sort of street poetry. Give Harold Pinter his pauses; the stammer belongs to Mamet. The instant his characters begin backing up and restarting—which is to say, with their first onstage breaths—you know they’re hiding something.
The legal eagles in Race are smooth, but in their practiced cadences, you’ll still detect verbal tics suggesting hesitation and doubt. The problem this time is that Mamet has been annoyingly programmatic in how he’s parceled out the arguments. Race tracks a series of attorney-client meetings in which a legal firm’s partners—one black (Michael Anthony Williams), the other white (James Whalen)—debate whether they want to defend a wealthy white man (Leo Erickson) accused of raping a black woman. Also on hand is a freshly hired black honors student (Crashonda Edwards) who, being a woman in Mametland, can be counted on to throw monkey wrenches into their deliberations.
The case in this 2009 play is jaw-droppingly similar to the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair of 2011, in which the International Monetary Fund managing director was accused of sexually assaulting a hotel maid. But while that lends the evening an initial frisson, what sustains audience interest is the legal wrangling, as the lawyers instruct on process (“there are no facts of the case, there are two fictions”) and the defendant parses their queries with quasisurgical precision (“If I gave her money does that mean I paid her?”). At Theater J’s final preview last weekend, the performances hadn’t entirely jelled in John Vreeke’s briskly authoritative production,but the essence was clear enough—entrenched white male privilege battling perceived black entitlement—in any seeming slip of the tongue, more than likely a snare to trap the unwary.
Onstage relationships neatly mirror the ones an audience can only hear about as the attorneys quiz their client about a hotel-room liaison where sequins flew. Still, walking position papers will never be as emotionally engaging as full-bodied characters. Perhaps as a consequence, in Race the characters’ (and by proxy, the audience’s) individual prejudice and hypocrisy seem less on trial than does a truth-obscuring legal system—hardly the provocation you’d expect from this particular playwright.