nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 9, 2009
David Mamet's new play, Race, is the most interesting new work of his to reach the New York stage in quite some time. It's provocative and savvily written, though it feels in the final analysis more like something designed to push emotional buttons rather than stimulate reasoned thought about the topic that gives it its title. It has been given an expert Broadway production, and features a top-notch cast that boasts two of the most impressive performances currently on view here in town (I'm talking about James Spader and David Alan Grier; more on them in a moment).
The setting of Race is a conference room in a high-powered and high-priced (though probably not the highest-powered or highest-priced) law firm, in a big city somewhere in the US. Law is indeed one of the main subjects of this play: Spader plays Jack Lawson, an uber-attorney who mingles cynicism and idealism in his breathtakingly objective approach to his job; Grier plays Henry Brown, another partner in this firm, one with a more pragmatic outlook, especially when it comes to understanding the realities of human nature.
The only woman in the play is Susan (significantly not given a last name by the playwright; played by Kerry Washington), who is a young African American employee of this law firm, possibly a sort of protegee of Jack's; I was unclear at first as to whether she is a paralegal or a lawyer in her own right (apparently the latter, as it turns out).
The fourth character is their client, an extremely wealthy, extremely careless man named Charles Strickland, portrayed by Richard Thomas. Strickland's personality is hard to nail down because Mamet has underwritten this role; Thomas makes us care about him, even though what this man has done—the crux of Race—is only vaguely sketched out.
What he has done—or rather, what he is accused of having done—is rape a young black woman. He vehemently denies that he's done anything, of course. It comes out that he has been having a relationship with her, and indeed the fact that she's African American and that his friends will find out about this impropriety (for he is a married, rich, white man) seems to worry him more than the accusation, at least at first. Henry doesn't want to take the case, not because he necessarily thinks Strickland is guilty but because he doesn't trust him to be a forthcoming client. Jack is torn between his lawyer's code (everybody is entitled to a defense) and his slick postmodern credo (the law isn't about the truth or justice but rather about winning); both principles push him toward taking Strickland on. Susan lets us know up front about how she feels about Strickland: he seems guilty to her. But her actions quickly make us wonder what agenda she might be pursuing.
Race is in part a suspense story, in which various possible crimes, with possible motivations, are discovered and investigated; not all crimes, in this case, are necessarily illegal. Mamet plays with his characters and with the audience the way that a cat plays with a mouse: he leads us one place and then to another place, and we helplessly follow along. I wished, as the play wound down, that Mamet had the moral courage that his two lawyer characters seem to have; i.e., that he would actually take a stand and adhere to it. I grew hungry for some kind of black-and-white argument (pun possibly intended) about the relationships between races in America today. But Race determinedly tantalizes without ever revealing a point of view, which weakens it as drama though perhaps makes it more accessible as theatre.
The actors have a great deal to do with the success of the piece. Washington is always interesting to watch as she plays the enigmatic Susan, and Thomas brings his considerable resources to bear to make Strickland a worthy catalyst for the dramatic action. But Race belongs to Grier and Spader, the former marvelously forceful and intelligent and completely confident; the latter charismatic and almost tragic, weighted down as he is by opposing fundamental beliefs in romantic and pragmatic notions of truth.
The playwright is most successful in making his characters, especially Jack and Henry, into mouthpieces for intriguing ideas about the nature of legality, justice, entitlement, fairness, and a variety of other moral/ethical values, as they exist in today's America. Mamet's crisp dialogue—here far less loaded with expletives than usual—is put in service of smart, deep thoughts that keep us on our metaphorical toes. The production design, with a handsome set by Santo Loquasto, appropriate costumes by Tom Broecker, and lighting by Brian MacDevitt, serves the piece beautifully. Race moves quickly and tautly, under Mamet's own direction, and is both more stimulating and more entertaining that any new American play I've seen on Broadway in quite some time.