A Small Cast Stuns in Goodman Theatre’s “Race”

How could a play simply titled “Race” not be edgy, risk-taking and a bit outrageous?

Well, this David Mamet piece, which debuted on Broadway in 2009, certainly lives up to the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright’s illustrious and controversial reputation. The show, which runs a brief one hour and 50 minutes, including intermission, is a tour-de-force of people behaving badly, its many tensions eased by racially charged comic relief.

Director Chuck Smith aptly characterized the play as “in-your-face” about race, and his cast of four deftly captures the stubborn personalities in play. Two attorney partners—Henry, who is black, and Jack, who is white—are called to defend a wealthy white client who is charged with the rape of a black woman. As they mull over the many pitfalls of accepting the case, they enlist the help of their new associate, Susan, a young black attorney with an Ivy League education. While parsing out the different biases that a jury brings into a courtroom, they discover their own prejudices as well.

The sharply honest and biting script is full of F-bombs, N-bombs and other profane language. The cynical Henry, played by Geoffrey Owens (Elvin from “The Cosby Show”) responds to the question “Do all black people hate whites?” with “You bet we do.” And when Susan makes a mistake, he slams her in front of his partner, saying, “She let her color jump on her intellect.” (Cue audience hiss).

Jack, played by Marc Grapey (the obnoxious publicist J.J. Mitchell on “Sex & the City”), is perhaps the most complex character, the white lawyer who eventually admits that he hired Susan partly because of her race, intentionally overlooking the fact that she lied on her employment application. His reflections on guilt and shame are the deepest, and his lines—delivered with total commitment by Grapey—are the most entertaining. At one point he turns to his two colleagues and says, “What do the blacks think?”

There’s no sympathy for Charles, the white defendant, portrayed as privileged and narcissistic by Goodman veteran Patrick Clear. And last but certainly not least, it’s a pleasure to watch Tamberla Perry (who played the wet nurse Elizabeth in “In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play” at Victory Gardens last year) play the polite yet defiant Susan.

“I do not think that people are basically good at heart,” David Mamet said in a 2008 interview. “I think that people, in circumstances of stress, can behave like swine.” And what a good show that makes.

“Race” plays at Goodman Theatre through February 19. For tickets, call 312-443-3800 or visit goodman.org.