Credit: Eric Y. Exit

For 40-plus years David Mamet has used theater to probe the sorer spots in the American psyche. In plays from American Buffalo to Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-the-Plow, he’s shown how damaging the imperatives of self-reliance, self-interest, and self-preservation can be to people steeped in free-market capitalism. Trying to get ahead in such a system, especially if you’re starting near the bottom, is the surest way to lose your soul. His best plays dissect our collective neuroses with unsparing accuracy.

But judging by his recent work, you might think he’s given up on examining the contemporary world—unless perhaps he’s been living in an unhinged, indecipherable America all his own for the past few years. Two of his recent major plays, Romance from 2005 and November from 2008, are almost completely divorced from the social and political realities they seem intended to satirize. Romance posits an American justice system in which a judge babbles incoherently throughout an entire case, sane adults think a bit of chiropractic might bring Middle East peace, and a prosecutor’s thong-wearing boyfriend can sashay into an active courtroom and end up in the judge’s lap. November features a sitting U.S. president who can’t remember his vice president’s name, talks about a looming foreign attack with his wife and a civilian visitor listening, and wonders whether his authority to pardon turkeys at Thanksgiving is in the Constitution. Mamet may have intended these two as farces, but the unmoored, scattershot plotting turns them into fiascoes.

With Race, which premiered on Broadway in 2009 and can be seen now in a Goodman Theatre production directed by Chuck Smith, he’s finally come back to a world most of us would recognize.

Rich, white Charles Strickland has been accused of raping a young African-American woman. He seeks representation from a high-powered law firm headed by Jack Lawson, who’s white, and Henry Brown, who’s black. They’ve just hired a young, black, female attorney named Susan. This being a Mamet play, she’s the wild card outsider.

The play unfolds in a slick, imposing conference room, convincingly realized by set designer Linda Buchanan using dark wood and floor-to-ceiling bookcases. Jack and Henry spend most of their time analyzing possible defense strategies. As the play’s title suggests, the salient feature of their every assumption, calculation, and conclusion is race. In the “public mind,” they explain, a rich white man accused of raping a black woman is presumed guilty. When Strickland argues that facts are more important than public perception, Brown immediately sets him straight. “Fifty years ago,” he says. “You’re white? Same case, same facts, you’re innocent.”

The legal maneuvering and intellectual fencing go on for the better part of 90 minutes. Much of the discussion centers on how and why various interested parties—prosecutors, juries, reporters, a media-addicted public—interpret, revise, and mistake the meanings of race, gender, and sex. A defense lawyer’s best shot, Henry and Jack agree, is to fashion a story that harnesses and finesses enough of those meanings so that a jury can feel good about finding a client not guilty.

It’s heady, maddening, thought-provoking stuff, especially in the hands of Smith’s unimpeachable actors, each of whom finds a blood-and-piss character behind Mamet’s rebarbative, rhythmically stylized dialogue. Often, Mamet seems to be shuffling a handful of ideas back and forth rather than letting them develop into the sort of paralyzing conundrums a play like this needs. And the action is credible only if you overlook one gaping logical flaw: that these allegedly sought-after attorneys have nothing to do but sit around and debate the merits of accepting a client who walks in off the street. Their firm never gets a call about another case. Still, that allows Mamet to pack a hell of a lot of unpleasant truth into a brief span of time.

Race seems to mark Mamet’s return to form. But for all its intellectual rigor and disquieting musings, the play is dramatically slack: there’s too little at stake for its characters. Sure, Strickland faces serious jail time, but his fate, ironically, is never much of a concern. The worst outcome Jack and Henry face is a little fallout over having represented such an unsympathetic defendant. Susan may leave the firm. Otherwise life will go on. By the end, when an act of betrayal permanently alters relations among the three attorneys, it’s clear that each of them is fundamentally unchanged by all that’s happened.

In short, Mamet never gives us a reason to feel pathos. Unlike the contemptible, cynical, but also pitiable small-time operators in American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross, the characters in Race are impregnable. And since they can’t fail, they can’t provide compelling drama.