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Mamet's 'Race' Turns up the heat on society

By JULIE McHALE - TimeOut Theater Critic

February 6, 2014

WAUKESHA - David Mamet, a very prolific playwright and screenwriter, is best known for his brutal, uncensored language and negative view of the human race. 

Even though I find his works fascinating and honest, I always leave after encountering one feeling a little scummy and ashamed. So if you’re looking for inspiration, avoid Mamet. But if you’re open to alternate points of view, come see “Race,” now playing at the Next Act Theatre in Milwaukee.

The script takes on the issues of race, gender and the so-called justice system. A wealthy white man has been accused of raping a black woman in a hotel room. He brings his case to a law firm with one white and one black lawyer and a female black assistant-secretary, who is also a lawyer.

These four characters comprise the cast. We never meet the woman who has allegedly been raped, but the accused claims that the sex was consensual.

As in any criminal case, we are confronted with the question of whom to believe and the preconceived notions of everyone involved in the case. One assumption that must be accepted for openers is that we all have prejudices, and our perceptions are based on our own unique experiences. Many times our words don’t match our thoughts. We often tailor them to meet acceptable societal standards.

Another thought that came to mind in following this story is that, according to Mamet, human behaviors are motivated by self-interest rather than any moral code, and greed, power and revenge are often the instigators of the choices we make. There is certainly some truth in his philosophy, but whether or not it is the whole truth is debatable.

David Cecsarini, Lee Palmer, Jonathan Smoots and Tiffany Renee Johnson, a newcomer to the Next Act stage, comprise the strong cast. Cecsarini and Johnson are standouts in their sizzling verbal exchanges.

Race is definitely still a problem in society, especially in the U.S. with our unique heritage. Gender issues also prevail, even though some progress has been made on both fronts. 

As for the justice system, driven as it is by money and who can afford the most skilled lawyers, as well as the problem of the pre-conceptions of the jurors, one wonders if justice is just another idealistic notion, never to be realized.

They are all fascinating issues to ponder, and Mamet, with his in-your-face style, forces us to squirm but not hide.

Rick Graham’s slick set design and Edward Morgan’s slick directing, along with some convincing acting, combine to offer us something to ponder as we braved the cold to encounter some of the heat of Mamet.

“Race” runs through Feb. 23 at the Next Act Theatre, 255 S. Water St., Milwaukee. For show times and tickets, call 414-278-0765 or visit www.nextact.org.