Friday, April 2, 2010

Theater Review: Race

“I am the victim of a false accusation.... I didn’t do anything,” insists Charles Strickland (Richard Thomas), an extremely wealthy, white, married socialite, shortly after the curtain goes up on David Mamet’s new play, Race, at the Ethel Barrymore. We’re watching the provocative work’s four characters perform in a plush law office, designed by Santo Loquasto, in which the entire rear wall is lined with imposing legal volumes. Strickland, an upper-class patrician, has been accused of raping a black woman in a hotel room. “You’re white,” Henry Brown (David Alan Grier), the firm’s black partner, responds without pause, as if that is reason enough to be accused. “Do all black people hate whites? You bet we do.” But Charles continues to claim that he’s innocent. “Nobody cares,” responds the white partner, Jack Lawson (James Spader). And when Susan (Kerry Washington), the firm’s recently hired black clerk insists that “this isn’t about sex; it’s about race,” Jack asks, “What’s the difference?”

If the lawyers seem unpleasant, harsh and excessively mean-spirited, that’s a part of Mamet’s authorial style. These lawyers are concerned, of course, that by attacking a black woman, they, too, might be accused of racism. That’s the risk. In spite of all the negativism and attacks, the challenges and doubts, it appears that the lawyers are ready to tackle the case. It’s apparent that the client had left his Jewish attorney because he seems to believe that he stands a better chance of being acquitted if he were represented by a mixed-race law firm. This is, of course, an aggressive theme for a play. And the two lawyers and their clerk pose a series of arguments and questions to see where they might be vulnerable. Jack seems convinced that “neither side wants the truth.” And yet, of course, both sides want to prevail. And there is one piece of evidence, the sequins on the black woman’s dress, that plays a significant role in the second act. But I will not spoil the surprise here.

The entire cast is excellent, but I feel I must single out Spader for special praise. Of course, he has made a career of playing genially scaly characters on film and stage. Watch, for example, how he quickly manages to end an unwanted phone call: “Yeah, and blah blah the weather and blah blah the market....” He seems always to be three steps ahead of everyone else. And he appears to exemplify the Mamet style more than any other actor on the stage here.

I must also praise Tom Broeker’s costumes and Brian MacDevitt’s lighting design. And certainly no one could have directed the proceedings more aptly than the author, David Mamet. The late, great Walter Kerr once called Mamet a “word man” and, more often than not, the words in Race soar.