Race & Skates 

Midtown theaters stage Race and Xanadu.

Courtney Oliver and Carla McDonald

Chris Neely Photography

Courtney Oliver and Carla McDonald

Why was he compelled to name it Race?

David Mamet says his play Race is about the lies we tell each other on the named subject. His special veritas — slavery being such a faraway thing — is that we're all a great big tangle of contradictions. And color is like a card any self-interested party might play for personal advantage in the game. Gender too.

Okay, so maybe these aren't especially new or even useful ideas. Mamet still writes great dialogue, and the cast performing Race at TheatreWorks speaks that dialogue extremely well. Perfectly paced and powerfully imagined by director Brian Fruits, it's a late-season highlight. Just try not to take it seriously.

If only Mamet had named his play for the hotel where the alleged sexual assault takes place. Without changing another word, it's a better script. Like his masterpiece, Glengarry Glen Ross — a show named for the neighborhood being sold by a shady real estate company — it becomes a study in survival framed by a unique jargon-colored microcosm. Take away the racist realtors, insert a cynical law firm, and you've got a compelling little legal drama that uses race in provocative ways but isn't necessarily about it.

But Mamet can't help himself. He likes to poke the bear. So he writes a play about a rich white man who may or may not have raped a poor black woman in a red sequined dress. Then he names the play using a word loaded with stories so hard and true they make even a notoriously tough-minded playwright like Mamet look like a prancing romantic. It's almost like he wanted to fail.

Race is a nihilistic legal procedural set in a world where there are no facts, only competing fictions. The white defendant, played with depth by Stephen Huff, is a study in duality: fully guilty, fully innocent. He yearns to confess something he can't articulate, while the integrated law firm defending him is taken down by a traitor in the ranks. The charming punch line, if Race has one: Right or wrong, a bitch is always a bitch.

John Maness, Jeramie Simmons, and Pauline Dyer are outstanding in an effective psychodrama that strains to be more. Through July 21st I've been thinking a lot about Xanadu and have reached a definitive conclusion (drumroll): It's a big mistake to think about Xanadu.

A comparison to Brecht's Good Woman of Setzuan had been considered. No, seriously. Stop laughing. Both take a self-aware approach to performance and feature meddling, imperfect deities, and unsustainable economic models, and there's a fun little essay hidden in there somewhere.

But why would anybody do that? "Art isn't just for the educated or intelligent," as we are told in Xanadu's opening sequence. It's also for "people like you."

Xanadu, at Playhouse on the Square, is an intentionally ridiculous ELO jukebox musical starring Nicole Hale and Corbin Williams. It's fashioned after the ridiculous 1980 roller-disco movie of the same name. Director Scott Ferguson and choreographer Jay Rapp delight in the dumbness of it all, and the cast spreads stupid all over Michael S. Brewer's makeshift rink. Clocking in at 90 minutes, it's a short, strong burst of ignorance personified and absolute bliss, start to finish.

As Courtney Oliver cackles during one of her exits, "This is children's theater for 40-year-old gay men." For the record, it works just fine for straight folks too.

As Kira, an ancient Greek muse, Hale's painfully affected Australian accent gets funnier as the show progresses. So does the starry-eyed innocence of Williams' Sonny, who skates earnestly around the stage in his too-short cutoffs. But this story is genuinely inspired by Greek mythology, so, naturally, the chorus also plays a starring role. Oliver and Carla McDonald are clearly having a blast as a pair of mischievous muses and throw themselves into the over-the-top air-guitar glory of "Evil Woman." The joy is catching.

Kent Fleshman is also terrific as the callous businessman who lost touch with his muse until Sonny spells out his plans to convert a run-down theater into a roller disco.

The big takeaway: It's better to do stupid material smartly than smart material stupidly. Xanadu is a big silly win for Playhouse on the Square. Here's to smooth rolling.

Through July 22nd

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