Canadian Stage presents Jason Priestley in Mamet’s RACE at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts
In November of 2008 when Barack Obama was elected president of the United States, political pundits openly mused about entering the era of a post-racial America. Perhaps they, like many of us, were swept up in the overwhelming joy and almost foolhardy optimism of the “hope” and “change” promised by the Obama campaign.
In RACE, the new play by Pulitzer prize-winning playwright David Mamet, currently presented in Toronto by Canadian Stage, we see that America hasn’t really moved past the issue of race at all but the dialogue has certainly shifted and evolved.
In the play, a rich white man (Matthew Edison) is accused of raping a black woman and seeks legal representation from a law firm consisting of one white lawyer, Jack Lawson (Jason Priestley), and one black lawyer, Henry Brown (Nigel Shawn Williams).
Mamet’s script is a complex and multi-faceted examination of the deeply contentious issue of race in America today. Everything from white privilege to white guilt, from affirmative action to the still deeply-rooted prejudices and mistrust between blacks and whites is explored in Mamet’s compelling script.
Typical of Mamet’s writing, the language is sharp, acerbic, and provocative. The script is densely layered with rapid-fire, often overlapping dialogue and requires a lot of active listening on the part of the audience member. Those who put in the effort are ultimately rewarded.
An additional draw for the Canadian Stage production is the casting of Jason Priestley, of Beverley Hills 90210 fame, in the lead role of Jack Lawson.
Though casting big-name actors to increase the profile and bottom line of a show is hardly a new trick, the big question is, can Priestley, an actor who built a career in TV and film and is better known for his auto racing than his stage work, master the complex character work and difficult dialogue required to pull off a Mamet play?
I think he made an admirable attempt but the performance wasn’t entirely there on opening night. Right off the bat I thought Priestley’s delivery was a bit off and he came off sounding scripted. Granted, I’m sure his delivery will smooth out during the course of the run and part of that awkwardness is inevitable given Mamet’s writing style and use of language.
At the beginning of the show the timing of the entire cast was off. You really need to get into the right rhythm and energy level to deliver Mamet’s dialogue with impact and I don’t think the cast was quite hitting it. Luckily, once the cast members warmed up they eventually found that rhythm as the play progressed.
Indeed, the scene near the end of the show where Jack Lawson is confronted by his young black female paralegal, Susan, played by Cara Ricketts, is scintillating. Priestley and Ricketts have a great rapport and convincingly play the mentor and student.
Production designer Debra Hanson cleverly fills the large stage of the Bluma Appel theatre with two large tables center stage and stacked filing cabinets to the sides going all the way up to the fly space.
However, I feel that the stage of the Bluma Appel is too big for this particular show; most of the stage space is decorated but sparsely used and the blocking seems unnatural at times because it needs to fill such a large space. It looks “staged” for lack of a better term and I can’t help but think the material would work a lot better in a more intimate theatre with a proportionally smaller stage.
Performance and production issues aside, RACE is definitely worthwhile because of the writing. Though it ends a little abruptly and the conclusion isn’t completely satisfying I really admired Mamet’s thoughtful examination of what is still one of the most contentious issues in America today. RACE is incredibly engaging, don’t miss it.
- RACE is playing at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front Street E.) May 5, 2013.
- Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8:00 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. and Wednesday at 1:30 p.m.
- Tickets $24 – $99
- Tickets are available in person at the venue box office, by phone at 416-368-3110 or online at canadianstage.com.
Photo of Jason Priestley and Nigel Shawn Williams by David Hou.