The distance between Round House Theatre in Bethesda and Theater J on 16th Street NW is only about seven miles, yet at the moment, that trip covers a large patch of David Mamet’s polarizing career. Round House has on its main stage a revival of “Glengarry Glen Ross,” the 1984 play that cemented his reputation and won him a Pulitzer Prize, while Theater J is featuring the regional debut of “Race,” a 2009 drama that some observers have pointed to as evidence that one of America’s premier playwrights has descended from scathing portraits to mere screeds.
You can take in both of these decently handled productions and judge for yourself. It’s the all-too-rare instance of programming alignment; I’d have rented a fleet of jitneys to run between the theaters and called them the Mamet Shuttle. On this occasion, the shuttling between pieces written 25 years apart does make plainer a great dramatist’s disappointing narrowing of vision and growing tendency to hector his listeners rather than enlighten them.
The particular shame in this case is that Theater J’s “Race,” directed by the always even-keeled John Vreeke, is the shriller but tauter of the two evenings, featuring a quartet of strong portrayals by Crashonda Edwards, Leo Erickson, James Whalen and Michael Anthony Williams. They’re all so commendably committed to the dramatization of this rather slender play — purporting to give the lowdown on racial politics as it pertains to the legal profession —that you wish they had a better distillation of Mamet’s skills to work with.
“Race” is Mamet meets “Law & Order,” and like most episodes of that long-running franchise, it is juicy and rife with plot twists — and almost instantly forgettable. Hinging on a broad-brush belief in a national tribal mentality, it’s as unsubtle as the issue is complex (and even the title suggests a reductive treatment of the subject). A wealthy white man (Erickson) walks into a law firm that has one white partner (Whalen), one black partner (Williams) and a black associate (Edwards) and says he’s in need of legal representation: He’s been accused of raping a black woman.
There’s not a believably human character in sight. The playwright uses them as epigrammatic mouthpieces. “There are no facts of the case; there are only two fictions,” Whalen’s Jack says at one point. “Do you know what you can say to a black man on the subject of race?” Williams’s Henry asks at another. “Nothing,” replies Erickson’s Charles.
“Race” goes on like that for 80 argumentative minutes, as Jack and Henry debate the pros and cons of taking Charles’s case, and Edwards’s Susan — depicted as the most agenda-driven and thus, in Mamet’s estimation, the sneakiest — runs in and out of their office. She seems possessed of a briefcase full of ruses to try to influence the firm’s decision and Charles’s fate.
Vreeke applies an appropriately slick veneer, reinforced in Misha Kachman’s shiny office set. On the other hand, Jared Mezzocchi’s impressive projections, a montage of historical images of civil rights and other racial struggles, set up expectations for an incisive elucidation in Theater J’s Goldman Theater — one that never transpires.