Gratuitous Violins rating ** out of ****
Knowing how much David Mamet likes to press those hot-button issues I was really looking forward to a provocative evening when I went to see his latest play, Race, at Broadway's Barrymore Theatre.
From what little Mamet revealed about the plot in advance, I knew it concerned three lawyers - two black and one white - defending a prominent white man accused of raping a black woman.
And the cast sounded promising - James Spader from Boston Legal, comedian David Alan Grier, Kerry Washington from Ray and The Last King of Scotland. But most exciting for me was a chance to see Richard Thomas on stage - John Boy Walton in the flesh!
The tortuous history of race in America is a subject I care about - passionately. I've had numerous, lengthy discussions over dinner with friends and colleagues - black and white - about matters like affirmative action. I've heard expressions of anger, hurt, frustration and yes, bigotry. I've also heard painful accounts of discrimination. I've tried to listen as much as I've talked and I hope through that process, I've gained greater understanding and empathy.
But in all of those discussions I never experienced the overriding emotion that struck me while watching Race. I was bored. At times, the play felt more like a legal brief than an incendiary piece of theatre designed to provoke impassioned debate. It seemed so contrived and I really didn't care about any of these characters, whether they were guilty or innocent.
(I also had trouble hearing some of the actors, especially Spader and Washington, both of whom are making their Broadway debuts. But I learned later that Washington wasn't feeling well, so maybe that was part of it.)
Spader and Grier, as law partners Jack Lawson and Henry Brown, get off some good one-liners as they try to decide whether to defend Thomas' Charles Strickland, the man accused of rape.
As Lawson, Spader is an arrogant know-it-all, without his TV counterpart Alan Shore's charm or humor. "There is nothing that a white person can say to a black person about race which is not both incorrect and offensive," Lawson says early on. He then proceeds to spend practically the entire play doing just that!
Washington seems kind of stilted and unconvincing as Susan, their young associate. It doesn't help that Mamet has her behave in a way that seems unlikely for someone in her position. Grier is good in a forceful role, as the partner who doesn't quite trust her.
And Thomas, as much as I loved him in The Waltons, is disappointing here. He seems too meek and unsure of himself to be convincing as someone wealthy and prominent. His character is so mild-mannered I didn't believe he could have done what he was accused of doing.
But my biggest problem is that Mamet really doesn't have anything very interesting or revealing to say about race. Too often the dialogue sounded unrealistic. I found myself thinking, "people don't really talk that way."
He's also incredibly cynical, basically doubting that black and white Americans will ever understand each other or trust each other. Well, hello! I used to be pretty pessimistic on the subject of race, too. But now that we've elected a black man as president, I find it hard to maintain that same level of pessimism.
Maybe I'm simply not a Mamet fan, because I didn't like last year's Broadway revival of Speed-the-Plow very much either. He seems to write plays that are more about ideas rather than fully developed characters and stories.
In fact, I think Race is less about the relations between black and white Americans and more a critique of the legal system.
Through Lawson, Mamet has some pointed things to say about how lawyers manipulate juries. It's as much about psychology as it is about presenting evidence. (Not that there's anything wrong with that. If I were accused of a crime I'd want my lawyer to use everything in his/her bag of tricks.)
But you know, even Mamet's digs at the legal system weren't terribly thought-provoking. If you've watched Boston Legal you've probably heard them before. And at least you would have been entertained.