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.
“Glengarry” is, by contrast, a great play, belonging up on the Mametian masterwork mantelpiece with “American Buffalo” and “Speed-the-Plow.” Though it’s even shorter than “Race,” the play is as character-rich as “Race” feels impoverished. After “Death of a Salesman,” it may be the best drama on American commerce ever written. It’s certainly the most delicious.
What, after all, is more entertaining than the art of the shaft? Real estate drives the American economy in good times and bad, and in “Glengarry,” it employs a terrarium full of retail reptiles, slithering among blueprints and brochures to locate gullible prey for their latest shady deal. Amid their hilarious spiels, Mamet gives us a vinegary bit of irony: The office of the rip-off artists is itself ripped off.
The work requires exquisite timing, which comes and goes in director Mitchell Hebert’s respectable production, for which James Kronzer has devised a superlative set: The lacquered Chinese restaurant in which we meet the salesmen revolves suavely into the shabbier confines of the office where they vie to be king of the vipers’ nest.
I saw the Round House production on the designated evening for critics, a night on which many friends of the cast and supporters of the theater also attended. Sometimes, the extra dose of audience enthusiasm is a help, and sometimes it can affect the rhythm of a play less helpfully. With Mamet, the liquid dissembling, the staccato patter, the virtuosic trash talk demand a careful listen and a cast in gleeful sync.
The actors’ energy levels on this press night felt all over the place, perhaps because of nerves or the knowledge that they were playing to friends. In any event, I’d like to go back, because so many fine actors are sharing the stage: Rick Foucheux, Alexander Strain, KenYatta Rogers and Jeff Allin, among others. They seem in striking distance of not only getting “Glengarry’s” laughs, which does occur, but also of nailing the excruciating desperation at the core of the play — which doesn’t.
Allin, in particular, is nailing it already. His embittered Moss, while not the showiest role, bristles with the special contempt for the world that develops in a person who lives with rejection and works on commission. It’s always lovely, encountering actors you’ve seen before showing you facets of their talent that you haven’t. And seeing it happen in “Glengarry” makes that experience all the more inspiring.
by David Mamet. Directed by John Vreeke. Set, Misha Kachman; lighting, Andrew Griffin; costumes, Erin Nugent; sound, Chris Baine; projections, Jared Mezzocchi; dramaturg, Jamila Reddy. About 80 minutes. Through March 17 at D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. Visit theaterj.org or call 800-494-TIXS (8497).
by David Mamet. Directed by Mitchell Hebert. Set, James Kronzer; costumes, Ivania Stack; lighting, Daniel MacLean Wagner; sound and music, Matthew M. Nielson. With Conrad Feininger, Stephen Patrick Martin, Jesse Terrill. About 75 minutes. Through March 3 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda. Visit roundhousetheatre.org or call 240-644-1100.