Sunday, November 29, 2009

Race: Mamet misses the mark

I seldom leave a show so awed by the writing that I have wanted to pick up a copy of the script in order to relish the playwright’s command of language. I can only think of two such occasions in the past 20 years. The first was after I had seen the original London production of Arcadia, in which—to my mind, at least—playwright Tom Stoppard reached the pinnacle of his skills. Arcadia was a masterwork in which a brilliant mind and a loving heart came together in the creation of the central character of Thomasina. With Arcadia, Stoppard found a human story to serve the complex interweaving of mathematical theory, the history of landscaping, and the playwright’s predilection for puzzles, conundrums, and paradoxes. I wanted to read the a copy of the play in order to pick up on the nuances of language that made for such a satisfying theatrical experience and to catch anything I might have missed.

More recently, I was moved to purchase a copy of the script of David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow after seeing last year’s sharp-as-nails revival. Despite the shallowness of the play’s three characters, the play was mesmerizing because of the playwright’s understanding of the sounds and the rhythms of language. The interplay among the characters was carried to glorious and scary heights by Mamet’s word choices and phrasing. I wanted to read the script out of admiration for the writing.

When he is at his best, no one can touch Mamet for inventiveness and style. Which, sadly, brings us to his latest play, Race.

Who would have thought that such a potentially incendiary topic—the nature of race relations in the United States—would have prompted such insipid writing from a master of dramatic tension? There is more drama in Mamet’s recent ten-minute play, School (part of the double bill at the Atlantic Theater Company, Two Unrelated Plays By David Mamet, reviewed in these pages on October 26, 2009) than there is in all of Race.

Race is a watered-down imitation of a Mamet play with the requisite liberal use of “the ‘F’ word,” three characters (there are four, actually, but one of them could be eliminated with zero consequences), and a story told in just over an hour—which turns out to be a long time to talk when you have precious little to say.

Before we get to the play itself, let’s acknowledge that part of the problem lies with both the setting and the set—a law office sprawled across a massive expanse of space, as safe an environment for what amounts to an intellectual (though not particularly revelatory) discussion about race as you can imagine and one where the characters seldom come close enough together to convey any feeling of potential physical or emotional threat.

Another problematic element is the direction. Mamet directed Race himself—not a good idea if you want someone with an objective eye to look at your work through the lens of its performance potential. None of the characters has much to do. One, a wealthy white client accused of raping a black woman, has virtually nothing to do but show up occasionally and then wander offstage.

Mamet has inhabited his law office setting with two partners, one black and one white; a young black woman, their law clerk; and the aforementioned client. Then he has them throw out some ideas, most of them hackneyed, about the nature of race relations culled from the situation and based upon a few questions: Why has the white partner hired the black assistant after finding out she lied on her application? Is it true that she tricked the firm into accepting what is likely to be an unwinnable case in order to prove a point? Do white men need to be more careful in how they interact with black women than do black men? These are not unimportant issues, of course, but the bland discussion of them does not make for much by way of a night of theater.

With so little drama, there is not much one can say about the acting. James Spader and David Alan Grier are credible as the law partners, Kerry Washington as the law clerk lacks the underlying spark of seething anger that might make her performance more interesting, and Richard Thomas as the client has so little to do, let’s just say he comports himself well.

How ironic is it when two revivals of musicals, Ragtime, and even Finian’s Rainbow, offer more compelling statements about race than a play that is dedicated to that single issue?

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  1. best review of RACE yet except you are being too kind. It was TERRIBLE!

  2. I loved RACE...obviously to each his own!