Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - December 6, 2009
Race Written and directed by David Mamet. Scenic design by Santo Loquasto. Costume design by Tom Broecker. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Cast: James Spader, David Alan Grier, Kerry Washington, and Richard Thomas.
If that concept offends or repulses you, back away now. Mamet, as has long been his wont, isn’t interested in comfortable and predictable “Can’t we all just get along?” moralizing. Granted, the message he proffers isn’t especially different from that at the heart of most race-conscious plays: “Deep down, we’re all the same.” But in Mamet’s view, we’re not all instantly good people; we’re all crippled by having to deal with either guilt or shame. And we all do it badly, because getting below the skin is a lot harder than it sounds.
This, then, is the most realistic play on the subject we’ve seen in a long time. It’s also a stunning return to original form for Mamet, who doesn’t abandon the show-biz savvy of his middle period (Speed-the-Plow, Oleanna) or the political awareness of his current oeuvre (School, November) while jumping headfirst in the acidic repartee of his earlier, most defining works (American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross). Race cuts deeper, and more frequently, than perhaps anything else Mamet has written.
What follows for most of the first act is a rumination on both their ability and their willingness. The paucity of evidence supporting Charles’s innocence, and the wealth of the prosecution’s case against him as a long-standing bigot, would apparently preclude defense. Assuming, that is, anyone can even agree on the nature of the crime. Susan is pretty sure he’s guilty; her bosses are undecided. But after a series of misunderstandings forces a premature decision, things get a lot easier: Maybe the issue is really something else.
“This isn’t about sex,” Susan protests, “it’s about Race.”
Responds Jack: “What’s the difference?”
Mamet weaves together the issues so tightly, it’s impossible to disagree with that conclusion. The exchange of power, of dominance, is so much the same that confusing one for the other is a lot easier than it may first seem. And it’s something they, as lawyers, can use - assuming they can prevent it from being used against them. Which, of course, they can’t - race and rape don’t intertwine only on the witness stand. Describing the plot much more would be giving away the tantalizing secrets and indictments that Mamet so viciously unleashes in Act II, so that won’t be done here.
It bears mentioning, however, that the production is rife with the clarity of language and intent that was so conspicuously absent from the most recent revivals of Oleanna and Glengarry Glen Ross, and that was somewhat subdued in last season’s American Buffalo. Mamet has staged the show with explosive simplicity that puts all the devastating focus just where it belongs: on the words. Santo Loquasto’s coldly gorgeous legal library set becomes a bullet-pocked battleground as Spader, Grier, and Washington face off in confrontation after confrontation about the precise orientation of the intersection of class, legality, and prejudice.
Spader is particularly terrific in the central role of Jack. He rattles off choicely withering one-liners (“I think all people are stupid. I don’t think blacks are exempt”; “Guilt is a legal term”; “It’s a complicated world. Full of misunderstanding. That’s why we have lawyers”) as brightly burnished life philosophies, with the secure sureness some use when reciting their age. Yet on the rare occasions that façade cracks, Spader reveals Jack as the most afraid of - and at risk from - the world’s calculating cruelness. This brings a sobering humanity to someone who has otherwise cultivated the persona of a super-slick Brooks Brothers robot. That Spader does this without introducing any contradictions into Jack is this production’s most dazzling special effect.
As Henry, Grier is doing some of the best work of his career. He never forsakes his robust comic background (from In Living Color on Television, or A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum on Broadway), but morphs it into a stiff-spined deadpan that perfectly complements Spader’s portrayal. Grier brings an intoxicating richness to Henry’s battle between his own racial identity, and the law he’s sworn to uphold - the interplay between the two, and the ultimate outcome of that struggle, is one of the play’s most exciting through lines.
Susan is one of Mamet’s most bewitching and complex female characters, and Washington is more than up to the challenge. In the first scene, her silent lurking about an upstage bookshelf may lead you to believe she’ll just be a beautiful part of the scenery. But no: With every line, she unveils a new layer of Susan’s personality, alternately embodying the acceptance, compliance, distrust, and aura of self-preservation that constantly obscures whose side she’s on - and why. Washington may be primarily a screen actress, but she’s giving an intensely powerful stage portrayal here, with line deliveries among the show’s most pungent, and a blistering intonation of one of the curtain lines that is utterly unforgettable for its clear-eyed savageness.
Only Thomas disappoints - if for reasons that aren’t entirely his fault. He looks and sounds almost dangerously wooden, yes, but Charles is the least satisfactorily drawn character, existing primarily to ignite the conflagration from which Jack, Henry, and Susan will spend the evening trying to escape. A more supple interpretation might cast doubt on Charles’s essential nature, and give more concrete voice to the “white guilt” side of the argument that’s otherwise addressed only abstractly.
Then again, it’s all abstract, isn’t it? One can’t probe the accused’s mind any easier than one can the accuser’s, so everything is ultimately a he-said-she-said volley of recriminations and deflections. Mamet doesn’t pretend there are any easy answers, but he also doesn’t pretend there are even any easy questions. He only contends that Race, like race - and sex - is a function of dialogue, and is best dealt with in the open. Mamet’s treatment may be far from bright, but the light it shines on this ever-contentious issue is enough to make it one of the most illuminating and invigorating plays of 2009.