David Mamet's "American Buffalo" and "Glengarry, Glen Ross" are modern American stage classics, and Mamet deservedly has a place in the pantheon of great contemporary playwrights.
But there is a growing body of the writer's work that has all the trappings of his classic plays -- the acidic bite, the sordid grandeur -- but lacks their sharp focus and cohesive vision. Call it lesser Mamet.
Case in point: "Race," a 2009 work that opened the San Jose Stage's 30th season over the weekend. Set in the offices of a second-tier law firm where two lawyers (one black, one white) are struggling over whether to take a case of alleged rape, it tries to drill down into the dark side of race and sex in America from a cynical perspective -- that it is impossible for human beings to exist without mistrust and suspicion.
On the surface, it is smart and sharp. It throws a lot of the crisp verbal punches Mamet is known for, but it lacks the depth of emotion (and human desperation) the writer brings to his better pieces.
At 90 minutes, the play feels very much like an episode of "The Practice," David E. Kelley's legal drama that ran from 1997 to 2004, but with a harsher view of life, an even more cynical perspective on the judicial system and far more profanity.
Still, in the right hands, "Race" can make for a thought-provoking, engaging evening of theater, and the Stage's production is definitely in the right hands.
At the heart of the story are two savvy, if less than wealthy, attorneys: longtime partners Jack Lawson, who is white, and Henry Brown, who is black. One day, the rich and powerful Charles Strickland walks into their offices unannounced. He has been accused of raping a black woman in a case that has made the front pages of local papers. The lawyers' young black associate, Susan, is appalled that they would even think of taking the case, although she tries to hide it.
The first act is filled with lines that are prime Mamet, as Lawson schools Susan on the realities of law and justice: "There are no facts of the case," he says. "There are only two fictions."
When Susan protests, "I thought lawyers were in the world to seek justice," Lawson sharply replies: "Well, you were wrong."
Brown is equally sharp with his tongue, particularly when it comes to Strickland. "The legal process is about three things: hatred, fear or envy," he tells his would-be client. "And you just hit the trifecta."
As usual, Mamet tosses in enough twists, turns and sleight-of-hand tricks to keep the audience off-balance through much of the play. What he fails to do is develop the characters, with the exception of the shrewd Lawson. Brown's lines, though sharp and often amusing, are too often rants, not dialogue. The enigmatic Strickland and Susan are more plot devices than real characters, with the one female character particularly underwritten (not an uncommon problem with Mamet).
But under the sharp direction of Tony Kelly, the cast manages to make much out of what they are given to work with. Randall King, the Stage's artistic director, and Cal Shakes veteran L. Peter Callender bring real balance to the relationship of Lawson and Brown. They may still be getting comfortable with the rhythms of Mamet's words, but they put some real heat and humanity into their characters.
David Arrow, another Bay Area stage veteran, makes Strickland a conflicted soul who may not be certain what he did. And ZZ Moor, a newcomer to local theater, brings more passion and deviousness to the role of Susan than can be found in Mamet's script.
Add in a nicely detailed set by Michael Palumbo and a particularly good sound design by John Koss (the use of a 2007 remix of Frank Sinatra's "This Town" is a terrific touch), and you've got a strong production.
What you get with "Race" is a legal drama that is all slick surface. The Stage's production makes it work, even if it is lesser Mamet.
Follow Charlie McCollum at Twitter.com/charlie_mccollu.
By David Mamet
Through: Oct. 28
Where: San Jose Stage,
490 S. First St.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes (no intermission)
Tickets: $20-$45, www.thestage.org, 408-283-7142