Reviews of Race, December, 2009-January 2010
This is an overview of the reviews of Race in the format of David Mamet: A Resource and Production Sourcebook (2003), which surveyed Mamet's productions to 2000.
Armstrong, Linda. “David Alan Grier returns to B'way in 'Race'.” Amsterdam News 3-9 Dec. 2009: 21+.
Preview of Grier in the play: "What's been fascinating to me living in this time, with the election of Barack Obama, is our national dialogue on race. It's kind of like we've been forced to grow up and have an adult conversation and a more nuanced conversation. I grew up in a Black and white world. You were Black or white - they didn't get into mixed race or parentage.
Backstage.com 6 Dec. 2009. Review of Race.
“At times the dialogue feels like a debate between stick figures representing opposing points of view rather than real people in a situation reflective of our conflicted society. In addition, the setup is somewhat similar to earlier Mamet plays: As in ‘Oleanna’ a revival of which just prematurely closed, a he said-she said dispute leads to a dangerous confrontation, and much like the plot of ‘Speed-the-Plow,’ a young female office worker who may or may not be more calculating than she appears comes between longtime business partners. […] Kerry Washington conveys Susan's cunning and determination with subtlety.”
Brantley, Ben. “In Mametland, a Skirmish in Black and White.” New York Times 7 Dec. 2009: C1.
Mixed review. This “surprisingly slack” play which “lacks real dramatic tension” failed Mamet’s hope “to provoke, to stir, to disturb. [… eliciting] more giggles than gasps. ” Compares it to Speed-the-Plow but “instead of two movie producers conversing in the cynical insider language of their trade, we have two lawyers, equally fluent in their jaded professional lingo,” with “a female neophyte in the picture, who may not be as naive as she seems and -- being a woman in a play by David Mamet -- is likely to throw a wrench into the masculine machinery.” The strength of the play is that “Mamet is also laying the foundation for broader, even existential questions -- including the shared human need to confess and atone.” But “An assured craftsman, Mr. Mamet builds his structure with precision and with what feels like a certain weariness with his own facility. What's lacking is the fusion of story, theme and character that lends bona fide suspense to his plays.” As for actors, Richard Thomas plays with a “cunning air of masochistic martyrdom” and James Spader “considers every inflection and gesture in creating the one role in ''Race'' with more layers than the who's-scamming-whom plot.”
Brantley, Ben. A New Team Tackles Mamet's Moral Fable of Pride, Prejudice and Susceptibility.” New York Times 1 Jul. 2010: C5. The replacement cast: “Eddie Izzard has the face of a fallen angel, of a rumpled cherub who grew up way too fast once he landed in hell. That face alone makes this British actor and comic a solid choice for the role of Jack Lawson, the Mephistophelean lawyer in "Race," […] True, James Spader had played the part to near perfection when the show opened in December. But I had hopes that Mr. Izzard, a brilliant stand-up portraitist of human perversity, might give a jolt of shock therapy to an often glib and mechanical play. […] Mr. Izzard's performance is smart and sensitive, but it generally feels more submissive than subversive. From the beginning he registers more as a self-deluding patsy than a super con man. The patsy has always lurked in Jack's smooth persona. (It's a Mamet play, remember; somebody has to get suckered.) And the revelation of his susceptibility is for me, the most humanizing aspect of "Race," in which the other three characters mostly register as movable points on a plot grid. Mr. Izzard has a self-questioning vulnerability from the get-go, though. He's a take-down waiting to happen.”
Brantley, Ben and Christopher Isherwood. “To Be Topical in a Time Out of Joint” New York Times 21 Feb. 2010: C1.
"ISHERWOOD Only a playwright of David Mamet's stature can be guaranteed a quick route to production and a podium on Broadway. And Mamet does seem to have taken up the mantle of becoming America's heavy-thinking, topic-addressing playwright these days. But I'm not sure he's really an idea man; his great strengths are more tied to language and character. Both ''November'' and ''Race'' are populated by two-dimensional people being manipulated by the playwright to score points or get laughs or, as you say, get the audience gasping at Mr. Mamet's own audacity.
BRANTLEY So I was trying to think of what's required of a play that wants to create a genuine, unsettling dialogue about immediate subjects. This is not, after all, a time when most people look to theater as a challenging forum of dangerous ideas, though in the past theater has thrived in eras of public mistrust of authority."
Dziemianowicz, Joe. “Hot Button? No, Snooze Button.” Daily News (New York) 7 Dec. 2009: 25.
“But even with Mamet's two-fisted dialogue and whip-smart one-liners, the commentary on the attitudes of whites and blacks that gets blown around the stage is all second-hand. ‘Race’ purports to be about the hot-button title topic, but the action veers to what Mamet really seems to have on his mind - distrust of women and how they manipulate. The theme is fresh from ‘Oleanna’ and ‘Speed-the-Plow.’ As Susan's motives come under question, you're left with that nagging sensation of same-old, same-old. […] Washington's bland performance makes it seem like there's less to Susan than meets the eye - just the opposite of what's needed.”
Economist 12 Dec. 2009. “Toying with taboos; ‘Race’ on Broadway.”
Preview with quotations from each of the actors. “Washington's attraction to the play stems from Mamet's signature combination of abstract social constructions such as the idea of race and a sense of authenticity in the writing. ‘I'm very drawn to the truth in his work,’ she says. ‘And then he takes an idea -- like the idea of race -- and he puts a question mark after it. It's fascinating and it's so packed with meaning.’"
Feldberg, Robert. “Mamet applies his acid charm to racial issues.” Herald News (NJ) 7 Dec. 2009: B01.
Mixed to negative review: “But although he makes several provocative points, the racial discussion is one of the least involving aspects of the evening. […] What's most pungent - and terrifically engaging - is the old Mamet, the creator of sharp operators, men who are cynical, profane and morally flexible. […] In the second act, Mamet awkwardly swings the play into an examination of how skin color affects every interracial transaction, whether its sexual, legal, social or commercial. […] Lawson and Brown must consider the question of why they hired Susan (who, oddly, isn't given a last name by Mamet). Was it because she was black, or despite that? Is her first allegiance to the client or to her race and gender? And how will the client's attitude toward black people affect the case? As these and other racial issues are raised, and left to meander, the story goes awry, with its dramatic holes becoming more evident.
Gardner, Elysa. “Mamet's 'Race' Raises Difficult Questions.” USA Today 7 Dec. 2009: 2D.
Negative Review: “Race may be the central theme, but Mamet, who also directed, is more interested in how differences -- in color, gender, ethnicity and class -- foster a lack of communication and breed resentment. ‘It's a complicated world, full of misunderstandings,’ Lawson observes. ‘That's why we have lawyers.’ The line seems at once sarcastic and pedantic. […] It doesn't help that Susan --the only woman who appears on stage -- emerges as the weakest character, thanks in part to Kerry Washington's lackluster performance. Like Carol in Mamet's Oleanna, Susan is enigmatic, and her motives become more suspect as the play proceeds; it's hard to tell whether Washington's stiffness is meant to suggest that Susan may herself be an amateur actress. […] There are no such problems with James Spader, who as Lawson offers a pitch-perfect combination of wit, weariness and cool brutality. David Alan Grier's earthier, perhaps wiser Brown is a worthy foil, while Richard Thomas' Strickland is convincingly conflicted.”
Jones, Chris. “Mamet's Latest Paints the World in Black and White.” Chicago Tribune 7 Dec. 2009: 3.1
“This little law firm has an ambitious associate, Susan (the only female character and the only character without a last name), played by Kerry Washington, who seems to be protecting herself by spitting out lines without worrying too much about what they reveal about her character; Mamet surely encouraged that theatrically fascinating unease. […] "Race" is wholly watchable. Gripping, actually. Don't believe anyone who argues otherwise. Granted, it is gripping within a dangerously narrow and familiar palette; "Race" is like a contrived composite of "Oleanna," "Speed-the-Plow" and a TV legal procedural. There are many holes in its dramatic logic. Mamet doesn't so much write plays driven by characters anymore. His shell-like characters are the whores of his ideas. […] This play will, I suspect, attract furious criticism from the left. Feminists who despised "Oleanna" will take even less comfort in "Race," especially in its treatment of Susan No-Name. As is the case in all of his plays, Mamet shrewdly builds in some dramatic and political ambivalence. It is never entirely clear who is guilty of what. But although he has always been careful to veil ideologies, Mamet is showing more of his conservative cards these days. […] This play probes affirmative action in white-collar professions. It's mostly an attack thereupon. If there is a thesis, it's that the law treated blacks and whites differently a century ago and does the same now. Both imbalances were wrong. […] And for all the dramatic provocations (and the brilliant matching of the richly contrasting Grier and Spader), there's a certain weariness that comes from watching the way that "Race" stubbornly ignores any and all differences in generational thinking and reduces its characters' loyalties to the color of their skin. It's a juicily argued reduction, sure, but also a very troubling one. Which is, of course, Mamet's point.
Kuchwara, Michael. “Mamet Play Ponders Black-White Perceptions.” AP 7 Dec. 2009.
The questions ‘Race’ poses and the answers its characters supply add up to an intriguing study of perception from both black and white viewpoints. […] In some respects, Race resembles Mamet's ‘Speed-the-Plow,’ with a bit of ‘Oleanna’ thrown in for good measure. In ‘Plow,’ the lowly personal assistant (female) attempts to upend the plans of one of the two (male) movie producers. And in ‘Oleanna,’ sex becomes an important part of the struggle between a college professor and a combative student. Yet […] the dialogue isn't as rapid-fire staccato as the language found in other Mamet plays. Maybe that's because the overwhelming complexity of the subject matter can't be compressed into short, definitive answers. Mamet's all-too-human creations may be talking about black and white, but these all-too-human people are dealing with a hot-button subject in various incendiary shades of gray.
Lahr, John. “Dangerous Liaisons: Tennessee Williams and David Mamet on the Damage That We Do.” New Yorker 14 Dec. 2009: 82.
Mixed review. “The lawyers' rebarbative style happens also to be Mamet's. He doesn't waste the audience's time; his exhilarating epigrammatic style broadcasts the will to prevail. Having declared recently, in a piece he wrote for the Times, that debates about race are, for the most part, ‘nothing but sanctimony,’ Mamet offers instead nothing but cynicism. In this, he is an equal-opportunity employer. […] To Mamet, self-interest is the bedrock of all human behavior. […] Mamet seems to insist on an unbridgeable divide between black and white America. His play acknowledges the hatred but not the source of the division.”
Lawson, Mark. “First night Mamet's Racial Drama Tackles a True Stage Taboo: Race.” The Guardian [London] 7 Dec. 2009:11.
“The white partner contends that the case is unwinnable because white jurors will fear being accused of racism and black jurors of treachery if they acquit. This line is also clearly a warning to the audience - again, as in Oleanna, cast as pseudo-jurors - to police their own reactions to the situations presented. […] Above such twists, though, Mamet is most concerned with the power and treachery of language: a line of dialogue vital to the prosecution case is cynically rewritten by the defence. Mamet's larger contention is that attempts to create a more equal and tolerant society have made race an unsayable word. The writer, who has faced claims that his plays require TV-style bleep machines, brilliantly contrives here a moment in which the single most taboo sexual expletive is ignored by an audience which then gasps at the word "black".
Lemon, Brendan. “Race. Financial Times (London) 8 Dec. 2009: 17.
Disdainful. “Mamet continues his descent into smug cynicism. The characters are representative figures rather than people with personal lives - mouthpieces for Mamet's ideas about the nature of confession, the difference between guilt and shame, and the lies we supposedly tell ourselves about the relationship between races. […] Where else on Broadway will they hear white, male characters growling such ostentatiously offensive lines? […]The young female associate turns out to be a politically correct crusader, a la Oleanna . Mamet, who directed this production, outfits her in a tight miniskirt, allowing him to amalgamate his preferred female archetypes: the whore fond of the tease and the harridan bent on revenge.”
McNulty, Charles. “Just another day at the office for Mamet; The profanity is there as well as the will to dominate, but 'Race' is one of his lesser plays.” Los Angeles Times 7 Dec. 2009: D1.
“’Race,’ […] starts strong but loses steam. […] The production, which Mamet directed himself on a grand, book-lined conference room set designed by Santo Loquasto, features two noteworthy performances, by Spader […] and Grier. […]Unfortunately, this character [Susan]-- another of Mamet's female subordinates seemingly out for retributive payback -- isn't well developed. Washington brings a cool and glamorous confidence to the part (costume designer Tom Broecker dresses her as though for a Vogue law-office spread), but there's something contrived about her motivation. […] Thomas does a fine job of not tipping his character's hand. Is he a villain with an expensive haircut or a victim with glistening shoes? The not terribly compelling enigma is preserved so that the other characters can reveal their own various streaks of culpability. Too bad Mamet can't decide on the nature of their indictments […] leaving his characters in a limbo where they're neither winners nor losers. There might be some truth to this stalemate, but the indecisive drama fizzles to a close.
Riedel, Michael. “David Mamet’s Tough ‘Race’ Is Seeking Stamina.” New York Post 9 Dec. 2009: 52.
Summary of critical reaction. “This was supposed to be the ‘controversial’ play that dealt ‘provocatively’ with the ‘hot-button’ issue of race relations. In a ploy to gin up anticipation, the producers tried to keep the script under wraps, although a copy wended its way around town a few months ago, underwhelming those who read it. One gossipy insider described it as ‘'Speed-the-Plow' in blackface.’ The critics were underwhelmed, as well.”
Rooney, David. Review of David Mamet’s Race. Daily Variety 7 Dec. 2009: 02.
Rather negative review: “There’s a whiff of the male-female smackdown of ‘Oleanna, and distinct structural echoes of ‘Speed-the-Plow,’ another flinty account of seesawing machinations. But ‘Race’ is more transparent than either of those plays, both seen in recent Broadway revivals. It riffs artfully on the subtleties of discrimination and its attendant guilt, resentment and shame, and its ambiguities appear designed to stir audiences up into testy debates. But there’s not enough meat here to chew on. […] Mamet throws out a heap of intriguing questions, both broadly ethical and specific to the characters. Is Charles a naive man with a conscience, and hence a liability as a client, guilty or innocent? Did Susan trap them into accepting an unwinnable case to grind her own ax? Was Jack’s extensive vetting of new hire Susan a discriminatory invasion prompted by the fact that she’s black? […] Even more, Mamet savors the antagonistic edge of creating a Machiavellian woman carrying a big mother of an angry chip on her shoulder. But Susan is more plot function than multidimensional character; she plays too much like a reprogrammed version of another distrustful woman who crashes the guys’ power party, Karen in ‘Speed-the-Plow.’ This contributes to a stiffness in Washington’s baldly hostile performance. Charles is barely more than a cipher, but Thomas eternally guileless face maintains the mystery as to whether he’s an ivory-tower innocent or a creep.”
Rooney, David. “Flaw and Order.” Variety 14-21 Dec. 2009: 35.
Still negative: “Slick but hollow Race entertains as it unfolds, but grows increasingly wobbly as it twists its way to an unsatisfying wrapup. The real enjoyment comes from watching the taut verbal interplay between Spader and Grier. Spader is right at home in the smooth, almost likably reptilian role, and he gets most of the best zinger distillations of ruthless pragmatism to come out of a Mamet play since Glengarry Glen Ross. His down-to-business phone manner (‘Yeah, blah blah the weather and blah blah the market’) says everything we need to know about this guy’s scant use for personal niceties. It’s slightly implausible, however, that a mind as sharp as Jack’s would be the slowest in the room to smell trouble, which undermines the evolving complications. Grier works a little harder to strip back the vocal personality to the required affectless delivery. But the constant sparks as his brusque barbs ricochet off Spader’s make it easy to overlook the fact that the writing’s dazzle is all on the surface. Maybe with further refinement, especially in the third and final scene, this play could be more incisive than just a witty provocation. The bones are certainly there. But as it is, it’s a lit fuse that crackles and pops but never quite explodes.
Vincentelli, Elisabeth. “No Winner in ‘Race.’” New York Post 7 Dec. 2009: 40.
Negative review: “The most stunning thing about the David Mamet play that opened last night is how clunky it is. […] ‘Race,’ which Mamet also directed, is a bewildering muddle. This full-on approach might have been entertaining (and the first act has its moments), but the second half sinks into absurdity. Revelations pile up, and when Susan finally unveils her agenda, she makes the vengeful student of ‘Oleanna’ look like a model of rationality. […] It's no coincidence that the plot is kick-started by a rape and that the betrayer is a woman: The show's nominally about race, but the elephant in the room is gender.”
Vincentelli, Elisabeth. “New ‘Race’ Cast Swaps Sleaze for Depth.” New York Post 6 July. 2010: 32.
More positive view with second cast: “The first time around, this premise felt like a mere pretext for a series of incendiary aphorisms designed to provoke uncomfortable laughs. […] The verbal jousting is played down now. Izzard's attorney comes across as much nicer - with an undercurrent of passive-aggression - while Haysbert exudes an authority that Grier sorely missed. This levels the playing field between them - and since their young associate (Afton C. Williamson, replacing Kerry Washington) boasts increased cunning, the power plays that link the three have gained in intricacy. Adding another layer is Thomas, the original cast's sole survivor. He's grown in strength, and his character now sports a fascinating mix of arrogance and prideful shame, like a Kennedy apologizing for a wrong deed out of a sense of noblesse oblige. ‘Race’ is still a clunky play, but it's become a lot more interesting to watch.
Wolf, Matt. “Broadway Roundup, Various Venues.” The Observer [London] 10 Jan. 2010: 16.
Unimpressed. “The astonishment, then, is that the same writer who walked a gender minefield to electrifying effect in Oleanna should look so comparatively hamstrung here, as if merely to make such remarks would be to raise the temperature level of a 100-minute play (including interval) that remains tepid throughout. The play contains what is clearly supposed to be a knockout final line, in the manner of Mamet's Speed-the-Plow, but the inevitable New York standing ovation on this occasion seemed especially robotic.”
Zoglin, Richard. "Mamet Descending." Time 175.1 (2010): 52.
Negative view: “The new Mametspeak is more like Mametshout: thematic statements imposed from on high and delivered with an epigrammatic stun gun. Racism is universal and unavoidable. (‘I didn't do anything.’ ‘You're white.’) Justice is an illusion. (‘The legal process is only about three things. Hatred, fear or envy.’) Free will is a joke. (‘Why does he want to confess?" "All people want to confess.’) […] The racial politics grow a little more complicated as the focus shifts in the last scene to the play's fourth character, a black legal aide (Kerry Washington) who, in the manner of most females in Mamet's male-dominated universe, turns out to be a snake in the grass. […] The turning point for Mamet's theater work, it now appears, was Oleanna, [which] seemed to grow out of the authentic passions of a particular time (just after the Clarence Thomas hearings), when sexual harassment and political correctness were ripe issues. Race, by contrast, seems like a relic of another era. The advent of Barack Obama may not have invalidated Mamet's cynical view of race relations, but it has made it seem shockingly glib and opportunistic. ‘This isn't about sex. It's about race,’ goes the exchange that brings down the curtain in one scene. ‘What's the difference?’ Make sense of that line, and you just might be able to make sense of where the most important American playwright of his generation has gone wrong. Good luck.