Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Mamet's Race Fails To Shock

As I try to review David Mamet's Race, I keep thinking about Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park, which I saw this weekend at Playwrights Horizons. Though obviously very different from Race in plot and writing style, Clybourne Park, about the changes in a community over time (the first act takes place in 1959, the second takes place in 2009), is smartly written with very real characters, portrayed by an expert ensemble, and is much funnier, surprising, and more successful in dealing with the issues than the disappointing Race.

Race, written and directed by Mamet, opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on December 6. The plot was kept under wraps prior to previews. A white man, Charles Strickland, (Richard Thomas) accused of raping a black woman wishes to be represented by a law firm of one white and two black lawyers. As the lawyers--Jack Lawson (James Spader), Henry Brown (David Alan Grier), and Susan (Kerry Washington)--debate whether to take on his case, their own prejudices are exposed.

The clever marketing of the show--the Web site allows you to investigate the crime scene, the tagline is, "From Pulitzer Prize winner David Mamet, comes his most explosive four-letter word yet. Race"--only raised expectations that this would be a highly provocative play. The most shocking aspect was the lack of swearing. Yes, some cringe-worthy phrases come up, but it's nothing that hasn't been heard before. There is some thought-provoking dialogue as one would expect in Mamet, but the buildup is missing (especially when that unnecessary intermission is thrown in). Whether or not Strickland was guilty never seems that important and the plot twists fall flat.

Washington, making her Broadway debut as a typical female Mamet character with a hidden agenda, gives a stiff performance and spends most of the evening scowling. The male actors are more than competent, especially Spader, but even he is not enough to save the evening from being a merely adequate night of theater.

Photo credit: Robert J. Saferstein

Note: I was given complimentary tickets to see the show in exchange for writing a review.


Carren said...

Too bad. A lot of my friends were going to see that. I wonder how they fared?

Thanks for the heads up!

timetraveler said...

I guess I am the contrarian, but I really liked Mamet's "RACE". My friends and I had a very spirited discussion after the play concerning the various issues presented in the work: race, gender, and the legal profession in general. We all thought James Spader and David Alan Grier were excellent in their roles, especially Mr. Spader, and that the play as a whole was very entertaining. The audience with whom we saw the show laughed a lot and seemed to be very into the production the entire evening. My only disappointment was the abrupt ending. I wish Mr. Mamet had constructed that differently, but equally it did not dampen my enthusiasm for the rest of the play.

Esther said...

I didn't think Mamet had anything terribly new or provocative to say about race relations. And his view is so relentlessly pessimistic. More interesting, I think, was what he had to say about the legal system and how lawyers manipulate it for their clients. It's more about psychology than justice. But overall, I didn't find the characters or situation believable.