David Mamet is a connoisseur of four-letter words, but he may have finally found one potent enough to subdue his infamous swagger.
Race, the title and subject of his new play, which opened this month at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway, starts strong but loses steam as the playwright approaches his tinderbox topic more like a journalist anxious to appear balanced than a theatrical provocateur.
Sure, the profanity rips as only Mamet can rip it, but his ideas lack their usual polemical bite and there's something tentative about the overall vision. As George Bernard Shaw demonstrated, the theater is an ideal forum for complex public argument on hot button issues. But the biggest debate this thin play likely will spark is among theatergoers wondering if their tickets were worth the time and expense.
The setting and cast put one in mind of a TV legal drama, even if Mamet's customary tight focus on language would allow the play to work just as effectively on radio. Jack Lawson (James Spader) and Henry Brown (David Alan Grier) are partners in a small yet seemingly successful law firm, which has taken on a young, Ivy League-educated black associate named Susan (Kerry Washington), who hovers in the background as the men toss Mamet's cynical grenades.
Charles Strickland (Richard Thomas), a white billionaire, seeks representation. He has been accused of raping a black woman, a crime he vehemently denies. Henry doesn't want to touch the case; he thinks it's unwinnable. But after what appear to be inexperienced missteps by Susan, the firm is obliged to defend a man whose ostentatious privilege will have some convicting him before any evidence is presented.
Like Harold Pinter, Mamet has always seen the world as a territorial struggle for domination. Racial concerns may be the point of contention for his characters in this play, but the ambition to maintain an upper hand over friend and foe alike is the same in all of his work. When Susan reminds her colleagues that the case they're working on is about sex, not race, Jack asks, "What's the difference?" To him, it all boils down to conflict and coverup.
One big difference is that America has taught its citizens to become adept at camouflaging their prejudices. Mamet lets us see the way sensitivity "to the most incendiary topic in our history," as Jack describes race, can breed better liars.
The production, which Mamet directed himself on a grand, book-lined conference room set designed by Santo Loquasto, features two noteworthy performances, by Spader (the Sex, Lies, and Videotape star who earned three Emmys for the character he played on the TV series Boston Legal and The Practice) and Grier (whose skills as a comedian are held at bay to show off his impressive dramatic chops). These actors have no problem handling their author's machine-gun-fire sarcasm, yet they find ways of hinting at more fully drawn characters. In other words, they're not just Machiavellian mouths in breathless motion. Mamet should work with both gentlemen more often.
Thomas does a fine job of not tipping his character's hand. Is he a villain with an expensive haircut or a victim with glistening shoes? The not terribly compelling enigma is preserved so that the other characters can reveal their own various streaks of culpability. Too bad Mamet can't decide on the nature of their indictments.
With a title like Race, controversy would seem to be a given. Yet Mamet plays a strange shell game with his theme, leaving his characters in a limbo where they're neither winners nor losers. There might be some truth to this stalemate, but the indecisive drama fizzles to a close.