The plot of David Mamet’s latest play, “Race,” which premiered on Broadway in 2009, is as simple — and as freighted— as its title. The talky drama at American Conservatory Theater hits the ground running and for 80 minutes or so never slows down.
A wealthy white man, Charles Strickland (Kevin O’Rourke) accused of raping a black woman in a hotel room, has arrived at a law firm claiming innocence.
Henry Brown (Chris Butler), who’s African-American, and his white legal partner, the lower-key but equally clever and sharp-tongued Jack Lawson (Anthony Fusco), realize they could lose the case, or win but become pariahs.
Fifty years ago, they agree, Strickland would have been automatically seen as innocent. Now, he’ll be automatically seen as guilty -- he’s an object of hatred, fear and envy.
But, due to a series of circumstances, the attorneys are forced to take the case.
As they craft a slippery defense strategy — one that has absolutely nothing to do with their client’s guilt or innocence, about which they don’t care — conflicts arise with their deceptively eager-to-please, black associate, Susan (Susan Heyward). They begin to suspect she’s betrayed them.
Layer by layer, through rapid and dense repartee, various issues come to the fore, woven into the overall topic – which is how we view, experience and talk about race.
Those issues include affirmative action, sexual attitudes, sexism, inherited and endemic shame (among black people) and guilt (Jews), the morally bankrupt legal profession, and the very nature of truth and lies.
Once the racism issue arises, as Jack comments, the genie is out of the bottle.
Mamet’s contentious characters bring forth every nuance of politically incorrect speech and thought about American race relations, presenting the various views so succinctly and disturbingly that it can make you wince — which is surely Mamet’s aim. (For what it’s worth, this is the Jewish playwright’s first play since he converted to conservatism.)
Interestingly, the characters, at least as far as we can tell, are never really honest — not to each other, not to themselves.
Director Irene Lewis, longtime artistic director of Baltimore’s Centerstage, helms a tight and slightly stylized production. Within designer Chris Barreca’s enormous office space – packed bookshelves set at a discombobulating diagonal, plus an adjacent room glimpsed through a glass wall — the actors often appear in starkly rigid postures, in the middle of empty space.
It’s a dramatically effective way of placing all the focus on the actors, who themselves are intensely focused, as befits such a purposefully provocative play.
Presented by American Conservatory Theater
Where: 415 Geary St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays closes Nov. 13
Tickets: $10 to $85
Contact: (415) 749.2228, www.act-sf.org