Friday, October 26, 2012

David Mamet, the art of the con, and the M.V. (Part 2)

Ken Cheeseman and Cliff Odle wonder if they're up to the eightieth page yet at the New Rep.
I can tell you precisely the moment I gave up on David Mamet's Race; it's the moment when one character describes a hot night in Bermuda as like being "inside a big black c--nt."

You could almost hear Mamet giggling over that one; he got to say the c-word!  (Jeez, Mom would kill him if she knew!)

But all I could think was, "Why not go for it, Dave?  Why not n--gg--r c--nt, too?  Hmmm?"

After a moment, however, I realized - no, Mr. Mamet had chosen precisely the slur he wanted; he wasn't really interested in a double whammy.  For Race, despite its moniker, isn't really about racism - not his own, not his audience's, not anybody's. It's about sexism.  Or rather - it is sexism, kind of "personified," if you will.  It is the thing itself.

Oh, I know, everyone huffs and puffs throughout the play about racial grievances; much of the script - like so many these days! - is basically a lecture delivered by the playwright through transparent mouthpieces: two law partners, one white and one black, who've seen it all and want to tell the walls (or at least the fourth wall) all about it.  But what do these two really have to say?  Not much; indeed, near the top of the script, Mamet admits "a white man has nothing to tell a black man about race" (a paraphrase).  And he seems to mean it.  Okay - so why are you still talking, white man?

Well, so he can grind his axe yet again about political correctness (as opposed to racism) to his putative audience onstage: a wealthy, older, white client who has been accused of raping a black woman.  Needless to say, he's willing to listen to Mamet's tired "liberalism is a con" rant, but he's also pretty creepy in general - still, he might be innocent.  By that I hardly mean the sex in question was "consensual" in the usual meaning of the term: money, or favors, or something was changing hands, in one way or another, we imagine - and as the assault occurred in a hotel room, with the victim clothed in a red-sequined dress - well, let's just say the lawyers have quite a bit to work with when it comes to defense strategy.

They protest otherwise, of course.  To them, racial sensitivities have made this case an open-and-shut loser.  And many would agree that political correctness has made battling this kind of accusation an uphill battle.  The tables have turned to some degree, in some arenas, on those in the ruling class.   The fix used to be in one way, now it's in another.

Still, this case hardly seems hopeless; and many a lawyer would be drawn to its challenges simply because they touch on so many political fault lines, and revolve around such a high-profile client.  Win or lose, this is the kind of case from which a skillful lawyer can emerge as a freshly-minted media player.  After all, Dominique Strauss-Kahn beat the charges against him - for it turned out he may have been set up (his horrifying behaviors quickly tripped him up again, of course).  And I didn't see any lawyers running from that case.  So the reluctance of Mamet's lawyers to take the job hardly seems realistic, much less up-to-the-minute.

But then Race isn't set in reality, it's set in Mametland, where the island of Bermuda is "in the Caribbean" (?), and postcards zip through the mails with the c-word printed on them (back in the 80's, no less!). What's more, this artificial construct (I won't  call it a play) is about as concerned with what is usually called "plot" as it is with reality: we never even meet the alleged victim, the scene of the crime is barely described, and there's nothing like an investigation of the facts of the case.  After all, that would mean Mamet would have to conjure more characters, develop a structure - so much work!  Who has that kind of time?

Luckily, once again the "Magic Vagina" (that's "M.V." from now on) comes to Mamet's rescue!   We've met the Mamet M.V. before - in Speed-the-Plow, Oleanna and elsewhere - and as I detailed in the previous post of this series, she not only serves as a projection of the playwright's paranoia, but also saves him most of the time and effort of actually writing a play.  She makes no sense at all as a "character" - with a consistent back-story, interior life, and arc - but as a plot device, she can't be beat.  If the play needs one more twist, the M.V. is happy to connive for no apparent reason; when it requires a climactic confrontation, she will return conveniently to the scene of the crime; when the dénouement demands a confession, she suddenly supplies it!  Whew!  The M.V. is basically the Ronco Pocket Plot-O-Matic for lazy playwrights!

The only problem with this sphinx-like crazy lady is that she's just not convincing as she drives the action with her covert actions (while the putative "plot" is hashed and re-hashed on stage).  Take the M.V. of Race, for instance, who is named Susan (not that it matters; she could be named "X") - a young black woman of few words from an Ivy League law school, who clearly has a chip on her shoulder about, you know, race and stuff, but clearly is suppressing it for the sake of her career.   From this we expect her to be smart, subtle, and always under control.

And yet, over the course of the play she basically commits professional suicide by undermining and destroying her client's case in a manner that begins with the improbable (she tricks her partners into taking his case) and quickly lifts off into the purest fantasy (she tampers with evidence, and divulges the firm's strategy to the D.A.).  Now trust me, I know the P.C. crowd - and I agree Mamet's right to call them out for ignoring facts and bulldozing the discourse - BUT - and this is key - they always do it to their own advantage.  They are careerists, not martyrs.

Ken Cheeseman tries to talk sense to Mamet's puppet (Miranda Craigwell).  Photos by Andrew Brilliant.

Susan, however, commits professional suicide without a second thought.  Yes, I know, Mamet floats a flimsy legal shield for her behavior - the firm investigated her background when she applied, which they didn't do to white applicants; so Susan could threaten a lawsuit if they retaliate for her actions.  But this is hardly enough to cover her you-know-what from all the professional fall-out of her betrayals.  Her partners may not fire or sue her, but lawyers do talk - and then there's the D.A.'s office . . . by the curtain, basically she's toast as a practicing attorney.

Of course Susan makes no sense internally anyhow, so it's pointless to wonder at her motives; but as a puppet, she has her function: she is designed as the Outsider, the Other, who attacks, and is then rejected by, Mamet's masculine community (so ironically enough, even as Mamet imagines he is skewering P.C. orthodoxy, he is actually unconsciously validating it, as he dramatizes women almost as a Nazi might dramatize a Jew).  Thus in Race, the testosterone brotherhood is able to resolve its differences and atone for its sins - partners Jack and Henry, after all, are now joined at the hip, and utterly loyal; and together, in a pivotal scene, they make Charles, their client, realize that he has, indeed, behaved in a patronizingly racist way to another man - to a brother.

But as for the sisters - well, Susan circles this heart-to-heart like a vulture, but cannot enter it; indeed, we realize later she has actually already engineered Charles's downfall - or at least his self-immolation.  For once the scales have fallen from his eyes, he trots right over to the D.A. and confesses, in a sudden spasm of expiation.

We never learn, though, whether he actually committed the crime he has "confessed" to - just as we never learn what could be driving Susan to ruin her own career.  Just as we never learn what made the other woman in question - the victim - accuse Charles in the first place.  We never really learn anything, in fact, except that David Mamet has now written eighty pages, and so the curtain must fall.

I will say, however, that even given the limits of this script (its appeal is confined to some pretty good race-based stand-up early on), the New Rep cast, under the direction of Robert Walsh, didn't get as far as they might have (with one big exception).  The Broadway cast was famously restricted by Mamet's stated intent to flatten their performances (I'm not kidding), but lead James Spader at least managed to sneak some intriguing subtexts into his big scenes.  The New Rep version, by comparison, is far more expressive and flamboyant, but arguably more superficial (although the sleek stage design, by Janie E. Howland, was quite a bit better than Santo Loquasto's boring set on Broadway).  As lead lawyer Jack, Ken Cheeseman nailed all his laughs like a pro - and that's nothing to sneeze at - but never suggested any real sexual (or racial) tensions with Susan; meanwhile, as best bud Henry, Cliff Odle was likewise funny, but didn't manage to suggest any sense of scarred history with his partner.  Meanwhile poor Miranda Craigwell did what she could with Susan, but in the end came off as a poised and intelligent actress saddled with a terrible part.

The surprise here was Patrick Shea as Charles, that client from hell.  Mr. Shea has been acting in Boston since forever in Shear Madness, which has generally kept him off our other stages.  And more's the pity; he brings a complexity - even a twisted sympathy - to Charles that isn't even in the script.  For evidence that a great actor can transform a mediocre role, you need look no further than this production.  With all due respect to Madness, let's hope this isn't the last time we see Mr. Shea outside of a hair salon!

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