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Theater review: David Mamet's 'Race' on Broadway

December 6, 2009 |  7:20 pm

Race 1
David Mamet is a connoisseur of four-letter words, but he may have finally found one potent enough to subdue his infamous swagger.

“Race,” the title and subject of his new play, which opened Sunday at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway, starts strong but loses steam as the playwright approaches his tinderbox topic more like a journalist anxious to appear balanced than a theatrical provocateur wanting to get beneath all the claptrap.

Sure, the profanity rips like only Mamet can rip it, but his ideas lack their usual polemical bite and there’s something tentative about the overall vision. As George Bernard Shaw demonstrated, the theater is an ideal forum for complex public argument on hot-button issues. But the biggest debate this thin play will likely spark is among theatergoers wondering if their tickets were worth the time and expense.

The setting and cast put one in mind of a TV legal drama, even if Mamet’s customary tight focus on language would allow the play to work just as effectively on radio. Jack Lawson (James Spader) and Henry Brown (David Alan Grier) are partners in a small yet seemingly successful law firm, which has taken on a young, Ivy-League educated African American associate named Susan (Kerry Washington), who hovers attractively in the background as the men toss Mamet’s cynical grenades.

Race 2 Charles Strickland (Richard Thomas), a white billionaire, seeks representation. He’s been accused of raping an African American woman, a crime he vehemently denies committing. Henry doesn’t want to touch the case; he thinks it's unwinnable. But after what appear to be inexperienced missteps by Susan, the firm is obliged to defend a man whose ostentatious privilege will have some convicting him before any evidence is presented.

Understanding, as most Mamet’s male characters do, that life is a contest and ethics merely an afterthought, Jack advises their new client to “cultivate the appearance of contrition.”  When Charles objects that he’s innocent, Henry, who’s African American, reminds him “You’re white.”

“Is that a crime?” Charles asks. 

Henry replies that it is, “in this instance.”  He’s referring not simply to the alleged offense but to our not yet post-racial era. “Fifty years ago,” Henry says, “You’re white? Same case, Same facts. You’re innocent.” Not anymore. Justice either has a lot of catching up to do or the time is ripe for revenge. 

Like Harold Pinter, Mamet has always seen the world as a territorial struggle for domination. Racial concerns may be the point of contention for his characters in this play, but the ambition to maintain an upper hand over friend and foe alike is the same in all of his work. When Susan reminds her colleagues that the case they’re working on is about sex, not race, Jack asks, “What’s the difference?” To him, it all boils down to conflict and cover-up.

One big difference is that America has taught its citizens to become extremely adept at camouflaging their prejudices. Mamet lets us see the way sensitivity "to the most incendiary topic in our history," as Jack describes race, can breed better liars.  

The play somewhat misleads its audience into thinking that its plot will revolve around the discovery of Charles’ guilt or innocence. The actual story lies in the inter-office dynamics, which grow complicated (and not in a particularly involving way) when suspicions are raised about Susan’s role in the case. Unfortunately, this character — another of Mamet’s female subordinates seemingly out for retributive payback — isn’t well developed. Washington brings a cool and glamorous confidence to the part (costume designer Tom Broecker dresses her as though for a Vogue law-office spread, but there’s something contrived about her motivation.

The production, which Mamet directed himself on a grand, book-lined conference room set designed by Santo Loquasto, features two noteworthy performances, by Spader ( the "sex, lies, and videotape" star who earned three Emmys for the character he played on the TV series “Boston Legal” and "The Practice") and Grier (whose skills as a comedian are held at bay to show off his impressive dramatic chops). These actors have no problem handling their author’s machine-gun-fire sarcasm yet they find ways of hinting at more fully drawn characters. In other words, they’re not just Machiavellian mouths in breathless motion. Mamet should work with both gentlemen more often. 

Thomas does a fine job of not tipping his character’s hand. Is he a villain with an expensive haircut or a victim in burnished shoes? The not terribly compelling enigma is preserved so that the other characters can reveal their own various streaks of culpability. Too bad Mamet can’t decide on the nature of their indictments. 

With a title like “Race,” controversy would seem to be a given. Yet Mamet plays a strange shell game with his theme, leaving his characters in a limbo where they’re neither winners nor losers.  There might be some truth to this stalemate, but the indecisive drama fizzles to a close.
 
-- Charles McNulty

Photos: Top: David Alan Grier, James Spader, Kerry Washington, Richard Thomas. Bottom: Spader. Credit: Robert J. Saferstein.

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