Where new plays are concerned, I like, as much as possible, to know as little as possible going in, the better to see how well the play—or the experience of the play—works on its own terms.
So when I attended author-director David Mamet’s Race to discover that its first billed star, James Spader, was playing a system-savvy lawyer, I had a few moments of what I can only describe as near-disbelief. Really? I thought. Has Spader actually moved on from six years as Alan Shore on the TV series The Practice and Boston Legal only to play a very close variation of the same character on a Broadway stage? After which I helplessly surrendered to the joy of it, because Spader is perfectly brilliant at it, and frankly, watching him as Alan Shore had always been among the TV highlights of any given week. The transition is seemingly effortless.
In the play, Jack Lawson (Spader) and his Afro-American law partner, Henry Brown (David Alan Grier) are interviewing a prospective client, the fiftyish and wealthy Charles Strickland (Richard Thomas). Strickland’s case doesn’t seem instantly like a winner; he’s accused of raping a young back woman. The evidence against him is compelling, he’s already been dumped by a high octane law firm, and there’s a Get The Rich Establishment White Guy fever in the air which will be an additional impediment to anything even resembling jury impartiality. But then Jack senses an opening…More than this I dare not say, but added to the mix is Lawson & Brown’s latest hire Susan (Kerry Washington), recently out of law school and also black.
The risk one takes in casting an actor like Spader to essentially replicate a function for which he has already become world famous and won multiple awards, is that the new material will suffer by comparison. Race both does and doesn’t. Unlike the TV scripts written and supervised by David E. Kelley, Memet’s play doesn’t give Spader a centerpiece summing up. Though he is marginally the central character (it is off his decisions and opinions that actions are taken), he is very much a team player in an ensemble. However, if he doesn’t get to soar, he does get to spar, never more energetically and pithily than with Grier, who holds his own with great, angry panache.
Taking the play strictly on its own terms, Mamet does a nice job of delineating the manifestations of new millennium racial divides, dramatizing the “You’re not black, so you can never understand” trope pretty well for a white guy who’s not supposed to be able to understand—yet, because, guilty or innocent, the client remains an unempathetic character, Mamet's missing the satisfying release of a David Kelley-like catharsis. Although here casting may be a problem: Richard Thomas plays the role of the accused with too much effete blandness for empathy to kick in; and Ms. Washington simply hasn’t the wattage and nuance of her litigious cohorts.
in the theatre there are rare, unique occasions that cry out for leniency from the bench and
the jury, and what can I say, for me this is one of them. I mean: Mamet
dialogue, Grier at his furiously funny best, and Spader considering the legal
angles, all in a near-breathless 80 minutes? Please. The only possible verdict
is guilty pleasure…
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