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Review of Race

David Mamet's new play opened in late November 2009 under his own direction with James Spader, David Alan Grier, Richard Thomas and Kerry Washington.

So many surprises with the newest play—in structure and form a return to the old fashioned Mamet themes and ideas and structure—most like Speed-the-Plow which appeared last Spring in this very Theatre, the Barrymore. The first shock is of course the title, which is a total departure from the usual misdirection or obscure Mamet titles—this one is actually a kind of misdirection too, but it is subtle. So too is the play, partly because of Mamet’s direction which makes the title come true: the play is a race for the actors who dash through it so speedily that the frantic reversals of expectation come so quickly it is hard to follow every twist and turn. But the actors themselves are terrific, both in clarity of speech, a Mamet trademark, as well as in their work together on stage.

Perhaps the most misdirecting is the opening— a white billionaire, Richard Thomas as Charles Strickland, is accused of raping an African-American woman in a hotel room. He has come to the law firm of James Spader (Jack Lawson) and David Allen Grier (Henry Brown) to be his defense attorneys. One might think, therefore, that the play is about this issue of sexual accusation, a kind of return to Oleanna at one remove. But immediately the issue is not actually guilt or innocence, but rather one of motivation. Why should the two lawyers, one black, one white, take this case? Or should they? Why did Thomas’ character leave his previous attorney, Greenstein, and show up at their offices—to get a black man on his defense team? They hardly let Thomas speak in their badgering of him over these motives, and totally dismiss his explanation that he and the woman loved each other.

This opening scene is actually very funny because the sexual issue and crime is so off the point. Instead we watch Spader’s Lawson, especially, maneuver his way through explaining that no one tells the truth, everyone lies, first to himself, then to the police, then to the court, and finally to God. This arch-cynical view gets laughs because it is so baldly stated, appropriate to Mamet-speak. No inflated language is allowed here. When Charles Strickland launches his love defense, or later writes a statement for the newspapers characterizing it as a misunderstanding with an apology for “we are all brothers under the skin” Grier and Spader simply cut him off after the first sentence. Not true, they both claim, instantly.

Thomas has the hardest role because he is allowed to speak so little. He sits poised on the edge of his seat, turning from one speaker to the other, evicted from the room over and over on the flimsiest pretexts—go write all the things you have done wrong in your life—just to get rid of him and keep him occupied. Casting Thomas, the eternally youthful looking John-boy Walton, image of purity and innocence in this role is perfect for Mamet’s misdirection. We have no idea how to respond to him. He walks off, composed, shoulders hardly moving, slowly, Mamet’s minimalism incarnate.

Spader and Grier, on the other hand, have all the best lines, especially Spader. But unlike Fox and Gould in the earlier play, these two are extremely smart and clever. Grier is at his best when he explains to his partner they are doomed if they take the case. If they win, they’ll be pilloried; if they fail to get him off, they’ll be losers. This kind of double reverse thinking is the center of the play—each move that is made is rethought, motives examined, where is the lie? The fun of it is that the opening gambit, Thomas comes to them to defend him, makes the issue not is he guilty, but rather why did he come to them.

The central enigma is Kerry Washington as the African American young lawyer intern Susan (no last name, significantly; why do men have full names?) whom both lecture to teach her the real workings of the law: there is no truth because all lie; there is only which side wins and how. Juries come in knowing the defendant guilty—otherwise why would he be charged. Their job is to give a different more appealing story—make the jury into a unified audience to their play. They even plan to restage the ripping of the dress in court, with the intern as victim having the dress ripped off her. At first hers seems to be the totally passive role of listener, learner, but as the play unfolds, like Madonna in Speed-the-Plow, her role leads to a whole series of reversals that come fast and furiously leading to a dazzling conclusion that doesn’t bear much thinking about—for its ideology implies, in a return to an old view of Mamet’s (see Oleanna), woman, this time African American to double the stereotyping, as upholder of unexamined ideals, and as a result, destroyer of men (who stand for the real, not the ideal). The only disappointment here is that the play seems to return to an objective reality at the end of the play, unlike Oleanna or Speed-the-Plow. So rather than support the view that no truth is knowable, one seems to emerge at the end which violates the whole premise of the play. Unfortunate ending, I thought.

But my son Geoff, who teaches at Iowa State, had a different response to the ending (Our whole family of seven attended the performance together and had some interesting discussions as a result). Because the pieces of information come in so fast and seemingly arbitrarily at the end, Geoff thought that this shows that Lawson was, in essence, correct—they were all the result of a con by the D.A./police—revealing that the intern was wrong in her insistence that she knew the truth. That’s intriguing and sounds so very Mamet-esque, (as in the Grove published ending of Glengarry, rather than the acting edition which cuts the last twist of the knife). If this were Mamet’s intention, I wish it could have been a little more explicit. The first reversal of evidence is questioned by Spader’s character, but before he can think why the cleaning woman would change her story, the police man claims he forgot one page of his report—and submits it late changing the story. It all certainly sounds hokey—but it came so fast and furiously I assumed we were to take it as read, rather than question the motives as we had throughout the play. Probably that’s my error.

This reading of the conclusion as ambiguous fit with the curious set by Santo Loquosto which had an impressive back wall of hundreds of volumes of law books/journals on a raised platform with railing, the ground level being simply a desk left and a long conference table with four chairs more in the middle. The furniture was Mamet-minimalism but the books were a little too much. More importantly the floor, only visible from the mezzanine seats, was scuffed to raw wood—stain worn off, no polish or any upkeep. Was this a touch of the run-down to the law firm? I also couldn’t get a read on the costumes—men in suits just look alike to me. Spader often took off his jacket when the client was out of the room, keeping on his vest, but rearmed when being more formal. The intern’s costume was the trickier—skirt and blouse, no suitcoat. She sat in the back on the balcony at the start, an invisible watcher whom I thought a secretary with a bit of a too short skirt—the poster for the play just shows the torso and legs of a woman in a short red sequined dress. Is she being sexualized through this costume? The men certainly weren’t. And Lawson’s insistence that one uses anything to gain advantage—sexuality, race, etc. would imply she was using rather than masking her gender. But when she forces him into an apology for suggesting she be the victim in the court staging to have him, presumably, rip off her dress, she uses sex and race—as Grier’s Henry Brown makes clear later, playing on white guilt. No one can fully escape Guilt and Shame in this play. The misdirection of the title, Race, makes it clear it is not about that topic, but the guilt and shame that racial issues entail.

David K. Sauer
December 23, 2009