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A CurtainUp Review
Original Review By Elyse Sommer
While Race opened officially as Christmas trees and holiday songs began to blanket Manhattan, don't look for a God Bless us all happy resolution to Mr. Mamet's Dickensian assessment of our continuing racial issues. His intent is to provoke, and so he does, with plenty of politically incorrect sexual and ethnic words to spice up the verbal dueling that's come to be known as Mamet-speak. But provocoteur though he is, David Mamet is a theater pro. He knows that people don't come to the theater for a lecture but to be entertained. As it turns out, Race is less persuasive as a powerful polemic than as an entertaining law and order style drama that happens to involve an integrated law firm in a criminal case intensified by the racial identity of the plaintiff and the defendant.
Of course the fact that Charles Strickland (Richard Thomas), who admits to having sex with his accuser but insists that it was consensual, seeks out Jack Lawson (James Spader) who's white and his partner Henry Brown (David Alan Grier), who's African-American, is no accident. Strickland thinks the firm's racial makeup would work better for him than the Jewish lawyers he's just fired. But Lawson and Brown aren't eager to take over the case since they view it as a no-win situation both in terms of getting Strickland off (which seems impossible) and the effect on their reputation if they could (being branded as racists who helped a white man to destroy a black woman).
The only possibility for winning this particular case hinges on the little sequined dress pictured on the Playbill's cover. I would be a spoiler to go into more detail. But I can tell you that Mamet is fortunate in having James Spader (an experienced lawyer via his Emmy winning Boston Legal) and David Alan Grier to play his legal eagles. They handle the take no prisoners interchanges naturally but with plenty of snap, crackle and pop. Kerry Washington as Susan, does well by the young associate who, like the female character in Speed-the-Plow, turns out to contribute a lot more to the plot complications than looking terrific. Richard Thomas rounds out the cast as the man who may or may not be guilty. Though he has the least stage time, he is extremely persuasive with wonderfully expressive body language (firm and straightbacked at first, more discombobulated as the plot thickens.
Mamet, who also directs, keeps things moving briskly even without the action and scenery shifts of TV dramas of this ilk. Santo Loquasto's handsome set combining office, conference room and law library is spacious enough so that you don't miss the TV format of lawyers and clients constantly walking and talking their way down hallways and up and down courtroom steps.
Despite the abundance of quotable comments on the race issue and the thought provoking detours into the guilt and shame that comes with conscious and subconscious prejudice, even the excellent Spader and Grier can't keep this debate from coming off as somewhat forced and artificial. As for the entertaining twists and turns of the story line, I wouldn't expect Mr. Mamet to have a cheery Christmas sort of ending, but bah humbug, I couldn't help wishing the surprise ending had come as more of a surprise.
For more about David Mamet, with links to other plays by him reviewed at Curtainup, see our David Mamet Backgrounder