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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the Barrymore Theatre


  James Spader, Kerry Washington, Richard Thomas/ Ph: Robert J. Saferstein

“Race is the most incendiary topic in our history,” remarks Jack Lawson, the white lawyer played in his Broadway debut by a portly James Spader. So why, then, is David Mamet’s new play so tame? Mamet’s second work in three seasons to have its world premiere on Broadway (November was the previous one, at the same theater, the Barrymore), Race weds a provocative title to a notably uninvolving or even freshly illuminating script. One would be clamoring for the return of the theatrical bruiser who gave us Oleanna, except that the swift fade of the recent Broadway incarnation of that play would suggest that the Mamet of a bygone era isn’t necessarily a better prospect. (American Buffalo, anyone?)
This new play feels like a situation or an idea that hasn’t been fleshed out, beyond bringing together a group of guys who are thrown ideological and emotive hand grenades by the play’s lone woman, Susan (Kerry Washington), a new black hire at the law firm presided over by Lawson and his black partner, Henry Brown (David Alan Grier) – a character whose name surely bears no relation to Henry “Box” Brown, the 19th-century Virginia slave who escaped to freedom in the north: Tony Kushner for some years was planning a play about him.
The three legal minds come to blows, after a fashion, courtesy of the emergence of a white client in Richard Thomas’ Charles Strickland, who has been charged with the rape of an African-American woman. Henry Brown thinks the case is “a loser,” Lawson isn’t entirely sure about the credentials of the black employee he has recently hired (in which case, why did he hire her?), and Strickland is keen to go to the press, leaving Susan watching often silently from the sidelines, as if waiting for Mamet to dignify her character with a last name. On the other hand, Karen in Speed-the-Plow has never had a last name either, and she’s made it through many a revival.
As directed by the author, the play flashes intermittently into life, an audience hungry for some sort of verbal or circumlocutory frisson chuckling appreciatively at Spader’s delivery of the line, “Blah blah the weather and blah blah the client” – vintage Mamet-speak that makes one want to see this same fine actor in a different Mamet play. (In fact, he’d be good in both Oleanna and/or Speed-the-Plow.) But no. The narrative stumbles along, impervious to common sense – why in heaven’s name would Susan keep a copy of her lofty-sounding college thesis in her office drawer – on the way to one of those putative knockout endings that is supposed to leave you agape. Instead, sorry to say, I left Race scratching my head.


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