"Race" at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, February 25, 2010
(Photo by Robert J. Saferstein)
David Mamet's latest effort in provocation is now running on Broadway in the form of Race. The story swirls around the law firm hired by a very rich, white man to defend him against charges of rape, leveled by an African American woman.
The defendant, Charles (Richard Thomas) has already fired his attorney once and is shopping his case around. Law partners Jack Lawson (James Spader) and Henry Brown (David Alan Grier) get roped into taking the case when their clerk Susan (Kerry Washington) mistakenly gets copies of the indictment and police reports from the district attorney, constructively making them the attorneys of record before they've had a chance to actually make a decision on it. Mr. Mamet metes out plot twists and revelations a bit obviously at times, but manages to keep the tension high as the white and African American characters examine and expound upon their own views of race in contemporary society. Mr. Mamet has toned down the volume of f-bombs, but plugs in the n-word as a substitute.
Mr. Thomas plays Charles so simpy and passive that I fully expected one of the plot twists to be that Charles is gay. (he's not, btw) Beyond that, Mr. Thomas suffers from "Jasmine Guy Syndrome," his presence practically sucking all the energy out of the theatre as he makes his entrance. (so named by a similar situation in Richard Greenberg's The Violet Hour from which Miss Guy resigned due to "health issues" during previews in 2003).
As Susan, Ms. Washington wavers between capable and self-conscious. Sometimes she gets the "Mamet patter" and sometimes she doesn't. Mr. Grier fares better, but doesn't have much to do, other than prompt tension among the characters onstage with him.
It is Mr. Spader, making an impressive Broadway debut as Jack, who carries the weight of the evening. He certainly has experience playing a clever lawyer from his years on TV's "Boston Legal" and it shows. He also adapts well to the language and rhythm of Mr. Mamet's writing.
Santo Loquasto's law library spills the story forward on the raked stage, serviceably, if unexceptionally lighted by Brian MacDevitt.
It's a better entry to this year's play season than last fall's "Oleanna" but there are similarities to "Speed The Plow" which keep this play from feeling wholly original, particularly a woman in a subservient position who may or may not be working from her own agenda. Still, it's at least another new play, versus yet another revival.