Theater Review: Race by David Mamet

The proximity of the recent Oleanna revival just two blocks away makes David Mamet's new play feel just a smidgen formulaic. In both, an angry young woman betrays her mentor because of a grievance for which he is culpable only in an abstract, class-informed way. The thing is, Mamet is so good at provocative audience-baiting dialogue, and Race's major characters so acutely finessed by his cast (he also directed), that it doesn't much matter that we've pretty much heard this story before.

Susan, a pretty young black law associate, spends a chunk of the first act hovering silently over the action as the two partners at her firm, white Jack and black Hank, discuss whether to take a racially charged case that another law firm has just given up on. Charles Strickland, a well-known, wealthy burgher, stands accused of raping a young black woman. He claims the sex was consensual and eventually convinces Jack and Hank of his innocence, but otherwise he's the client from hell, poetically guilt-wracked over societal and psychological injustices.

 


Richard Thomas is excellent in the role, though I found myself wishing he had a bit more to do. The main action is in the play of ideas, where James Spader's Jack and David Alan Grier's Hank own the show. These two intellectual heavyweights on the cynical circuit thrust and parry using Susan (a slightly wooden Kerry Washington) as their shiny sabre. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the playwright's famous contrariness, it's Jack, the white partner, who eventually displays the soft underbelly, trusting where he shouldn't have.

On the other hand, it's hard to blame Jack for not knowing he's in a David Mamet play. Hank, for his part, is a little more clear-headed; both black characters, in fact, have a more complete sense of the human predilection for playing every card in one's hand, however charged with danger it may be, and however deep-rooted Jack's own lawyerly cynicism seems at first.

It's nice to know we don't live in Mamet's world. Prejudice and even hate may indeed, as the play suggests, remain endemic in our culture, even in each one of us. But these ills do not entirely define us. Showing compassion, whether guardedly like Jack or openly, doesn't always bring punishment on the sympathizer.

The superb Spader's character gets the fullest development (and many of the best lines) but Grier's Hank is a small, hard marvel, thoughtful yet morally weightless.

I wonder what Thomas, who in my experience seems incapable of turning in a poor performance, might have done with the larger role of Jack. But Spader, whose entire career has till now essentially been on the screen, displays such stageworthy solidity that one imagines he could have been treading the boards for the past 20 years instead. Projecting for a live crowd does take away his trademark basso, but there's plenty of depth in the rough grey matter of Mamet's ever-treacherous landscapes to satisfy most eggheads.

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