Of all the playwrights working today you’d be hard pressed to find one who has had more critical acclaim lavished on him than David Mamet. And while he may, at times, be treated as the second coming, most of that praise is well deserved as any time you sit down for one of his plays (or films) you are guaranteed to have your long standing beliefs challenged in a format that is wildly entertaining yet downright brutal to those who refuse to keep up. Plus he’s never been one to pander to those upper class types who regularly fill the nation’s theatres.
Instead Mamet is out there engaging them in issues that usually entail some sort of moral quandary. He seems especially interested in investigating what makes us tick and then what happens when we tick in a way that runs counter to the societal norms. If we look at works such as Glengarry Glen Ross and Edmond then we notice that usually the consequences of such actions are hideously ugly. In his latest Broadway play, Race, Mamet takes on that most taboo topic of all. As the play opens Charles (Richard Thomas), a rich, white Jewish man enters a law office and pleads for his case to be taken. His crime? Well, he has been charged with raping a black woman who may or may not be a prostitute (she was wearing a red sequined skirt after all) in a hotel room, naturally.
The firm is run by two male partners, Henry (David Alan Grier) who is black and Jack (James Spader) who is white, and they also have a black female on staff named Susan (Kerry Washington) who is there to lend a helping hand. The skeletal plot really involves nothing more than these four characters twisting themselves into rhetorical knots trying to analyze the case to death. Most of the first act revolves around the question of whether or not Henry and Jack should take the case. Can they win it? How? What truths will have to be manipulated and how far, precisely, can a jury be misled? But a clerical error at the end of the act forces them to take the case and thus renders the whole discussion moot which is fine because it gives the action an excuse to move in a different direction.
When we come back from intermission the legal team is working over their strategy when Charles’ history starts coming into full bloom and this is anything but good news for his case. For instance, a letter, nearly 40 years old but no bother, surfaces and in it he makes disparaging remarks about the genitalia of black women. The fact that this is one of the high points of the action shouldn’t discourage you from seeing this play though because Mamet and his trademark dialogue grip you from the word go and turn an exercise in legalese into something brilliant. . .art that you can sink your teeth into while it viciously rattles your cage.
As for the actors Spader’s performance leads as he truly embodies the frustration of all modern men who feel strong armed into tiptoeing around the dozens of racial land mines that they come across on a daily basis. Grier is good as well, better than expected truth be told, though he still has a tendency to slip into bombast when it really isn’t called for. Washington seemed to struggle the most as the notoriously slippery Mamet speak had her on the ropes for most of the night. The true star of the show though is Mamet and his intention seems to be no less than asking every question there is about living in a multi-cultural society.
It could be argued that the script was weighed down by too many ideas but who would honestly want to argue that point? Most fascinating was the way he engaged those acutely uncomfortable dilemmas that infiltrate our minds all the time. A large hunk of act two is consumed with a debate between Jack and Susan over the circumstances that surrounded her hiring. Every minute detail is hashed out ad naseum (Why did he do a secret background check on only her? Why did she lie on her resume? Why did he catch her lying and then still hire her?) and the conclusion they come to is hardly the point next to uncovering the thought processes of these two highly guarded individuals. It is a rare piece of writing that can make you look at an old topic in a very new light, but once again Mamet reigns supreme.
Starring: James Spader, David Alan Grier, Kerry Washington, Richard Thomas
Writer: David Mamet
Director: David Mamet
Venue: Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W 47th Street NYC