Wednesday, December 16, 2009


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.


Anonymous said...

Brilliant review, my friend. RACE was one of the most misguided pieces of playwriting I've seen in many a season. In an effort to be controversial, it puts characters and premises into play that are simply implausible and badly structured. Ugh.

Esther said...

Awww, thanks so much! Yeah, I left thinking that I've had more provocative, more realistic discussions about race over dinner with friends. And I didn't even mention the musty old law-office set, which said "wills and trusts" more than "criminal defense!" But like I said, maybe Mamet simply isn't for me.

Anonymous said...

I guess I am the contrarian here...I loved Mamet's RACE. Actually I have seen it 4 times. The last being yesterday.

Mamet definitely writes ideas and not characters, so if you go in desiring a character driven play you will probably be left scratching your head and wondering why some people love it. His characters are not meant to say and do things that are within normal behavior. The joy of Mamet is the language and ideas. He normally does not deal in absolutes, but rather in ideas that are meant to give you pause to think. In RACE he does not add anything new to the subject, but rather just puts all we know or think we know out in the open. In a way it is sort of cathartic to hear things said so publicly that normally we only think or whisper.

As far as the actors, Spader and Grier are excellent at delivering Mametian dialog. I am surprised that you had difficulty hearing the actors. I have sat in various spots in the audience (orchestra and rear mezzanine) and have heard every word. The only place I have not been is in the rear orchestra under the mezzanine. In some theatres there is a bit of a dead spot in this location...I don't know if this is the case in the Barrymore.

Esther said...

Thanks so much for the comment, anonymous. I know Mamet has a lot of fans so like I said, maybe it's me. But I didn't go out of there feeling like I'd had a cathartic experience.

You know, I worked at a place that had a very aggressive affirmative action policy, which caused a lot of hard feelings among some of my white coworkers and a lot of mixed feelings among some of my black coworkers.

We discussed these issues a lot, so maybe I felt like I'd heard it all before - and in a much more personal context.

But I'm glad you enjoyed the play. Wish I'd been there with you and we could have discussed it afterward!

Anonymous said...

Yes, I would have loved to have seen the show with you. It is always fun to be able to discuss your immediate impressions of a play with others who have also witnessed the same performance.