Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - July 1, 2010
Race Written and directed by David Mamet. Scenic design by Santo Loquasto. Costume design by Tom Broecker. Lighting design by Brian MacDevitt. Cast: Eddie Izzard, Dennis Haysbert, Afton C. Williamson, and Richard Thomas.
This shouldn’t be as big a shock as it is. After all, replacement actors must stamp their roles with their own personalities to achieve even moderate success, and delivering a glowing star performance in a role created by someone else is never easy. And Mamet’s plays are tougher than most, relying on precision language and complex subtextual relationships to fill out stories that may feel underdeveloped on the page. Language, where it comes from, and where it’s going is crucial, and failing to deal with it appropriately is a theatrical death sentence. Race’s initial leads — James Spader, David Alan Grier, and Kerry Washington — were so perfectly matched with their roles that it seemed anyone who followed them would be hampered by the barriers on speech and attitude their performances erected.
Mamet has let no such thing happen. Eddie Izzard and Dennis Haysbert are the new Jack Lawson and Henry Brown, the two lawyers tasked with finding some way to defend the ultimate indefensible client: Charles Strickland (Richard Thomas), a wealthy society scion who’s been accused of raping a black woman in a hotel room. But whereas Spader and Grier approached their roles in a strongly delineated good-cop-bad-cop way that perpetuated one idea about who was in charge and why, Izzard and Haysbert have swapped the polarity.
For one thing, Henry is unquestionably in charge. With the black man the “heavy” of the duo, the terminally ignorant (and self-defeating) Charles can no longer wrap himself in the blanket of his prejudices. Against spiritual equal (and fellow white man) Jack, he could pretend he had a defender and confidant, but Haysbert dispels all of those notions immediately. His stentorian voice and deeply imposing stage presence make Jack an unsettling and even frightening fighter, whose intensity when fighting the good battle for his race cannot be equaled. He sees through all tricks, black and white, and crushes each one under the weight of his reproving glare or sonorous bass-baritone. Grier worked from an angle of bitter humor, but Haysbert’s Henry tackles everything straight on, never letting anyone forget that he’s calling the shots.
The third, yet equal, partner is Afton C. Williamson, Washington’s one-time understudy who has now ascended into the role of paralegal Susan. Though wielding close-cropped hair and a sharp, taut sexiness that recall the razor-edged Washington, everything else about Williamson is new. Washington was silky smooth and refined in the role, suggesting that her Susan had never known the horrors against which she was fighting. But Susan’s outlook and history under Williamson’s tenure are much darker: Williamson’s Susan has worked her way up from the streets, and struggles to hide the past she’s striven to suppress. (Hearing her urban speech patterns intrude more and more into her lines as the show unfolds is now perhaps the production’s finest special effect.) This added layer prevents Susan from approaching the central conflict as an outsider — now, it’s all about her, which makes her more active and threatening than she’s ever been before.
Taken all together and combined with Thomas, who since the December opening has found far better footing in the show’s smallest (and most catalytic) role, these performances add up to a volcanic new Race that will thrill newcomers and return visitors alike. Mamet’s direction is still harrowing and powerful, and blends with his script to generate purer, cleaner energy than could ever emanate from a fleet of hydropower plants. The jokes land with fire-bombing force, and the overall message — about the ostensible lie that is “postracialism” in America — is as devastating as ever. Every character may have changed, but they’re fighting the same battle for the future of social freedom in America. They’re all ruled by the media and by social norms, with no clear perception of how such a pairing could properly conclude.
The play is as exciting as it is because of how each character deals with the possibility that the ultimate outcome might be preordained — and that no matter what you think at any point (or, if you saw the original cast, thought then), you stand an excellent chance of being wrong. The depth of this complexity explains — if doesn’t excuse — the sole caveat I had about the Saturday evening press performance I attended: Izzard and Haysbert were not entirely secure on their lines. This play is a lot to chew on — for actors and audiences — and though both were 95-98 percent of the way there, those tiny slices prevented the performance from being entirely flawless.
Even with those handfuls of flubs, however, this remains the most electrically written, directed, and performed play on Broadway. That proves both the dizzyingly high level at which everyone involved is operating, and that Race is still a huge winner.