(The New Cast)

Written and Directed by David Mamet
Starring Eddie Izzard, Dennis Haysbert,
Afton C. Williamson and Richard Thomas
Ethel Barrymore Theatre / 47th between Bway & 8th Ave.
Official Website

Reviewed by David Spencer

I’m a big fan of David Mamet’s Race (you can read my original review here)—not his best play by a stretch, but devilishly entertaining nonetheless—and I could barely contain my enthusiasm over its original cast lawyers, James Spader and David Allan Grier. Upon revisiting the play to see the (mostly) new cast, my enthusiasm waned considerably.

               Not so much toward the play—and indeed I was very happy to have brought a companion who’d never seen the original cast, and for whom this was a first exposure to the play. And she loved it, which is important. The audience seemed into it too (albeit the laughs were less frequent and sometimes milder, which I’ll get to in a bit), some awarding it a standing ovation, which suggests that “virgin eyes” may be a key to perception here.

               But if you’ve seen the play before, my advice is to hold your memories dear. The two new male lawyers seem like a great ideas on paper, but are less compelling than expected upon execution. Singly, neither one has the quality of arresting cynicism that the text seems to cry out for: Standup comedy icon Eddie Izzard (in for Spader) is playing it so low-key he almost seems to be “marking” the role; and deep-voiced Dennis Haysbert (in for Grier) seems out of touch with the anger that ought to fuel this relatively combative role; he says the lines and they carry him, but he doesn’t propel them. And for a guy who’s spent so much time as a commercial pitchman, you’d think his stage diction would be stronger. But the microphone chops don’t enhance his theatrical delivery and at times his lines simply sound garbled. Together, Izzard and Haysbert are a more mutually affectionate team than Spader and Grier too, and that makes their own internecine disagreements less hot as well. Curiously, remaining original cast member Richard Thomas has not adjusted his energy to fit that of his new cohorts (nor they to him) so he seems to be playing to ghosts of the previous cast, which makes an already stilted performance that much stiffer.

               However, Afton C. Williamson, as the law office’s new young “hire” is actually an improvement on her predecessor, and seems more plugged into the volatility of the issue at hand.

               Lest this sound like a don’t see this play advisory, I stress again, my advice is mostly for those who have seen it. The leads may be more subdued, but the production itself (under Mamet’s direction) has not deteriorated. It’s merely that the gestalt, the frisson of spirited debate among abrasive characters isn’t what it was, because some of the edges have been rounded off.

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