David Mamet ventures into one of the most complex issues in our nation's history
As Kate Monster says in “Avenue Q,” “Well, it’s a touchy subject… You should be much more careful when you’re talking about the sensitive subject of race.”
In his new play “Race,” David Mamet wades into the topic with his signature lack of delicacy, directly confronting prejudice from both sides and its sometimes-toxic effect on everyone.
Mamet takes us into a small law firm where two male partners — Henry Brown, black, and Jack Lawson, white — have hired Susan, a black associate, and are confronted with a case in which a wealthy white man, Charles Strickland, has allegedly raped a black woman. It’s a fascinating conceit.
If the law is indeed, as Aristotle said, “reason free from passion,” the topic of race is often the diametric opposite, and as Brown and Lawson examine how they can manipulate a jury’s passions to exonerate their client, we go through the thorniest thickets of race, gender, guilt, language, self-interest, and legality.
It’s an emotional and intellectual minefield, and each character’s fatal flaw is that he or she cannot get beyond their own entrenched prejudices. Reason is left in tatters, and as Lawson says, there is not truth, “just two competing fictions.”
Not surprisingly, the play’s dilemma is ultimately unresolved, and the sense of unease one feels leaving the theater is completely intentional on Mamet’s part. Try as we might to rise above the issue, race is likely to get us in some way at some point.
Mamet writes with his typical economy, balancing what is said and what is unsaid –– and leaving the audience to contemplate why. While he has never stinted on using vulgarities as a means of defining characters, here, the reticence to use certain trigger words gives the play its power.
White, guilt-burdened Strickland may be prone to violence in private, but his discomfort with using certain language in public is a telling commentary on human behavior. Lawson is completely fearless about calling things as he sees them, reveling in the shock value of his apparent fearlessness, but he too has a racial Achilles heel.
Brown, as a black man, sits somewhere in the middle, but his role is the least developed and the most transparent polemic device in the piece.
Whether Susan is corrupt or opportunistic is left unclear, but like all the characters she’s working with what she’s got — and reason has little to do with that.
For all this intellectual complexity, the play is somewhat hobbled by a first act that is largely argumentative. Some of the speeches seem designed to set up issues to be knocked down, rather than to advance the characters or the plot. Mamet always intrigues, but at times he takes us out of the story, laboring the play. The playwright faced a daunting challenge, given the complexity of the issues he explores.
Mamet directed the play, not always with the crispness we might like, but with a mostly strong company. James Spader is wonderful as Jack, the real center of the piece, who balances arrogance and fear with bravado –– and an unsettling undercurrent both understated and galvanizing. He personifies the insidious struggles inherent in grappling with race.
David Alan Grier is powerful as Henry. Though his part is somewhat undeveloped, he achieves a great deal by pointedly staying out of certain issues. He manages to stay present, even when he’s not the focus of the action.
Richard Thomas is good as Strickland, and though his part, too, is largely a device to focus us on the interaction between Lawson and Susan, he imbues it with both warmth and conflict.
Kerry Washington is the one weak link in the piece. Like Julia Stiles in Mamet’s “Oleanna,” and unlike Grier, Washington she appears checked out when it’s not her turn to be on, undermining her overall performance and muddying our ability to understand her character’s motivations. Perhaps it’s fallout from mostly appearing in movies.
Mamet does not propose any solution. The play ends abruptly and without closure — as do many events in life. No one is materially changed. Life will go on, as will the struggle. What to do?
Perhaps the puppets in “Avenue Q” had the solution. They ultimately concede that “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” and get on with it. It’s not perfect, but it’s honest. When reason and passion become confused, the ending is unlikely to be tidy. No matter how high-minded everyone’s intent, race certainly fits that bill.
Ethel Barrymore Theatre
243 W. 47th St.
Tue. at 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.
Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m.