Monday, December 21, 2009

In Black and White

Written and directed by David Mamet
Starring David Alan Grier, James Spader, Richard Thomas, Kerry Washington

Performances from November 16, 2009
Barrymore Theater, 243 West 47th Street

In the first few minutes of Race, David Mamet dispatches several names which he assumes that a play with such a title should mention: namely, O.J., Malcolm X and the Kings (Martin Luther and Rodney). That Henry Brown, the lone black man onstage, does the talking is Mamet’s concession to civility: after all, a white man doing the name-dropping—as opposed to writing it—would be an outrage.

Smartly, Mamet doesn’t deal exclusively in obvious “shock” techniques to make the white liberals who populate Broadway audiences feel uncomfortable—although he does pepper the dialogue with a certain “n” word. Instead, Race is a concise, effective if not particularly memorable one-act play that’s been stretched to two acts by our playwright-director in his most egregious misstep. It’s filled with enough intriguingly abstract jargon about racism, sexism, affirmative action, injustice, etc. to overlook the extremely slight plot Mamet has shoehorned into his snappy patter.

The story, such as it is, concerns wealthy white businessman Charles Strickland, who’s been accused of raping his young black mistress; he visits lawyers Jack Lawson (white) and Henry Brown (black) to ask that they defend him. Meanwhile, the attorneys’ new assistant Susan (black, young, attractive) hovers in the background when she’s not answering questions about sex and race that her bosses pose to her.

Mamet seems less interested in the mechanics of his perfunctorily constructed court case—which hinges on whether sequins from the accuser’s dress were found—than in the bigger questions it engenders. Whenever the lawyers, their client and assistant bat around arguments that remain in the air even in the age of Obama, Race flies ahead. When Mamet pays attention to the plot—especially when he wraps things up rather weakly in the sequined dress department—Race falls behind.

Luckily, the play has an ace quartet that easily handles the usual Mametian verbal pyrotechnics. James Spader is a properly slimy and authoritarian Jack, while Richard Thomas practically oozes insincerity as Charles, a rich man accustomed to winning who’s not expecting to lose this time. David Alan Grier has the disgusted righteousness of Henry down pat, and enlivens what could have turned into a mere soapbox with a wickedly sardonic sense of humor.

As Susan, Kerry Washington—stuck in another poorly-written Mamet female role (are there any other kind?)—overcomes her lack of stage experience to draw a nicely-shaded portrait of a young black woman who’s both overcome and made use of her gender, her attractiveness and her color. Perhaps in contrition, Mamet gives Susan the last word, a forceful one-line diatribe that nevertheless sounds too neat, too pat, and Race ends short of the finish line.
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