REVIEW- Race – San Jose Stage

If you’ve ever seen the infomercials for the INSANITY WORKOUT, you come close to understanding what performing David Mamet is like for an actor and by some literary version of the transitive property, what he is for an audience to watch. The pacing is intense and your mental agility has to be in top form not only to deliver, but to receive Mamet. The actors have to be focused, fit and ready to sell rapid-fire rhetoric. The audience has to be able to turn on a dime and flex their brains big-time. At 90 minutes with no intermission, Race at San Jose Stage is hard-core theatrical calisthenics that get your heart rate up and synapses in shape.

The stakes are high with Race, you don’t ease into this play, not even a little bit. We get a brief scored montage at the top of the show and between scenes, but even when there aren’t any words we feel the pressure. We know things are on the line. Big things. Important things, people! THINGS, YOU HEAR ME!? Like a jury, the audience is an active participant in the play, silently gathering up the evidence and forced to come to a verdict, quick before it’s all over.

This is a Choose Your Own Adventure play in a way, where you couldn’t really predict or skip to the end, but there was a lot of going back and starting over from the beginning to see if you could “get it right.” Lots of dead ends, red herrings, motifs and cyclical thinking that proved intriguing, captivating and typical Mamet. Just when you think you know where you stand, you’ve made up your mind and the facts have all been presented, a twist is revealed that changes everything. You chide yourself for jumping to conclusions or passing judgement too quickly and are left to reexamine. We were served up a dish that at first appeared clear-cut black and white and quickly turned to gray-as-all-get-out, with a huge ass helping of “but what if he/she did/didn’t?” on the side.

Mamet is king of getting away with saying things that are on our minds, but wouldn’t ever say out loud. His candid, charismatic prose is like church for the would be literati. Did he just throw a sentence out that you couldn’t actually comprehend, but find yourself agreeing with as if it were the gospel truth?…Oh yes, he did. And, you’ll nod your head and give it an amen, you will, I swear it. In fact you’ll sign on the dotted line, it was so convincing. A credit to the writing, but also so much to the acting and direction.

Admittedly, opening night had a few line flubs and stumbles that stuck out more than they would in a less structured and more relaxed play, but I have every confidence that the fearsome foursome will deliver flawlessly with a vengence from here on out. All the actors had a handle on the humor that tempers the intensity of the script and there were so many nail on the head moments, that I almost forgot the hiccups.

The set is perfect, the music choice interesting and effective, and the movement, fluid and realistic. Lighting set a great warm mood that contrasted well against the cold and calculating accusations that flew about the room. The play was indeed good, but it was the after play that really made my night.

This play is a great example of what I love most about theatre; it spurs conversations. A group of us didn’t even make it 10 feet out of the theatre before commencing our post-show smack down. There in the lobby (ignoring the free food and adult beverages even) blocking doorways for exiting patrons, we conversed loudly. What were the real crimes committed? What roles did morality and racism really play? What were the real prejudices? What might the real fictions and truths have been? And, THAT’s an art in and of itself.

Being just enough of a catalyst to get people to unhitch from their inhibitions and talk is exciting. Mamet and San Jose Stage left just enough questions unanswered to compel us to find the answers ourselves. The theater in general and this play and production specifically, give us permission to approach important and possibly taboo topics and to explore, discuss, think, rethink, opinionate, reflect, and gesticulate wildly. Oh yes, there was wild gesticulation. And, a “but, listen to what I’m saying” as well.

For the play presented as well as the potential for further “drama” in the form of debate, a 4 ½ out of 5 jewels in the review tiara. A sharp, relevant and juicy piece of theatre that scratched the surface leaving the audience an epilogue to enact on their own. Race plays at the San Jose Stage through October 28th.

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3 Responses to REVIEW- Race – San Jose Stage

  1. Dan McGrath says:

    As stated in the review, the acting was superb and set amazing. The play was good in bringing up and addressing issues that, as stated, are otherwise left unstated. Race is an issue that we can naively wish would just go away. But the play in its ending is terribly — fatally — flawed. It is as though at the last minute there is an attempt to turn the wrapping inside out and quikly tuck in the corners. It felt like either the playwright did not know how to end it or suddenly felt he had run out of time so he could not take the time to develop it. It left a bad after taste after a wonderful meal.

    • Artsalot says:

      It’s interesting that you say that. I agree that the ending is abrupt and provides no closure, but that in fact I think was mostly intentional. Each of the characters would at some point like to pretend that race doesn’t factor into their lives, but it most certainly does, which is of course part of the conflict. TRYING to not bring it into the equation or feeling forced to based on one’s own or other’s prejudices. I think although the “shift” in the end to what is “legal” versus what is “racist” or base on race is tricky, because it for sure pushes a button. I suppose I saw it as an intentional jab, which SHOULD enrage us and get us up in arms about what is right, wrong or even just what the “point” was. This again is what I really liked about this play, while not at all complete (you can’t succintly discuss and solve the race issues in a play) I think it gave the audience great jumping off points, fantastic ways to not complacently sit back and finish your experience, but push you into a discussion and try to find some resolution (and of course there isn’t any as you say) on our own terms outside of the theatre piece. That you are moved to write about it, I think is great!

      • Dan McGrath says:

        I was bothered by the abruptness as you mention, but more that the things seemed muddied by the quick exit. And the muddying was not really related to race and did not have the feel of intentional non-closure. The senior partner got blamed for things for which his partner was responsible (and the partner seemed to get a free pass — he had the nice role of being provocative and unaccountable). The whole issue of the women lawyer’s disloyalty to the firm was just muddied — she sinned, but it was not clear whether it includes the mortal ones? And the statement of the accused final actions added nothing. None of these related directly to race, in stark contrast to all that had been done to great effect up to that point. There is much raised and open for discussion. The ending is plausible. It just seemed to be handled very badly and it certainly colored my enjoyment of what otherwise was an interesting play.

        You can see I left bothered by the playwriting instead of the topics raised. I think this counts against a play. Enough said. Thanks for the reply.

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