by Clark Groome

Reviews of the New York production of David Mamet’s latest, “Race,” were mixed. From the evidence visible at the Philadelphia Theatre Company, where it runs through Feb. 20, I can’t imagine why.

Mamet, no question, uses language like a club, and for some that can be off-putting I guess. Too bad, since his understanding of the power of words makes his best work stunningly insightful and thought-provoking.

Mamet sets his plays in very ordinary places: a junk shop in “American Buffalo,” a real estate office in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” a movie agent’s office in “Speed-the-Plow,” and a law firm’s conference room in “Race.”

The issue in “Race” is just how hard it is to really know what blacks and whites think of each other and whether or not, if the client is a white man accused of raping a black woman, as is the case here, whether a black lawyer can give the client a vigorous defense.

The lawyers in question are partners Jack Lawson (Jordan Lage), who’s white; Henry Brown (Ray Anthony Thomas), who’s black; and their young, pretty black female associate Susan (Nicole Lewis).

While the seriously rich and arrogant Charles Strickland (John Preston) is the client about whom all the conversations allegedly apply, racial issues and trust among the lawyers is really the center of Mamet’s often funny, often shocking play.

What’s not important, at least not to the two partners, is whether or not the guy is innocent. That is important to Susan. Without revealing any details of the convoluted and sometimes contradictory debates among the lawyers, suffice it to say that acres of ground are covered in the 105-minute “Race.”

Director Scott Ziegler’s PTC production is powerful and admirable. The acting is first-rate throughout. The entire affair captures both the passion and complexity of the issues at hand, and does so in a way that seems natural and honest.

Mamet’s “Race” is a play that once again confirms the playwright’s place as one of our theater’s most important voices. It also reminds us just how much words, when used carefully, can define issues and individuals.

“Race” is really good theater. While it may be rawer than some would like, it is, as much as anything, a play that will leave you wondering if the ideas you had going into the theater need to be changed because of what you saw before you left.

For tickets to the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s Philadelphia premiere of David Mamet’s “Race,” which plays through Feb. 20 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, call 215-985-0420 or visit www.philadelphiatheatrecompny.org