As one of the characters in David Mamet’s teasing faux-polemic on the subject says, “Race is the most incendiary topic in our history.” The slender play that takes its terse title from that declaration seems hatched more out of an urge to inflame arguments easily triggered in the age of Obama than out of the need to tell this particular story or even to explore the issue with any real conclusiveness. This being Mamet, however, the dialogue is tasty, the confrontations spiky and the observations more than occasionally biting. Slick but hollow, “Race” entertains as it unfolds, but grows increasingly wobbly as it twists its way to an unsatisfying wrap-up.
After venturing with mixed results into the previously uncharacteristic field of farcical comedy in “Romance,” “November” and “Keep Your Pantheon,” Mamet is back on native soil. There’s a whiff of the male-female smackdown of “Oleanna,” and distinct structural echoes of “Speed-the-Plow,” another flinty account of seesawing machinations. But “Race” is more transparent than either of those plays, both seen in recent Broadway revivals. It riffs artfully on the subtleties of discrimination and its attendant guilt, resentment and shame, and its ambiguities appear designed to stir audiences up into testy debates. But there’s not enough meat here to chew on.
Nor is there enough meat for a two-act play. Mamet’s production — his first time directing for Broadway — barely tops the 90-minute mark, even with an abrupt intermission that sucks a good deal of air out of the drama after a dynamic first act.
All four characters are onstage at the start, their footsteps on the wood floor of designer Santo Loquasto’s weighty law office syncopating the beats of the pithy dialogue.
A wealthy, white public figure looking for legal representation after his first choice took a pass, Charles Strickland (Richard Thomas) has been accused of raping a black woman; he claims the sex was consensual. The partners in the small but established firm, white Jack Lawson (James Spader) and black Henry Brown (David Alan Grier), grill the prospective client to assess if this is a case they want. Meanwhile, Susan (Kerry Washington), a young black woman whose role as junior associate or trainee is unspecified, keeps a cool eye on the discussion, leaning silently against the rear wall of legal volumes.
Through a series of errors (or are they?) on Susan’s part, the firm ends up listed as the attorneys of record for Strickland, long before the partners are ready to commit. Sensing a powder keg and needled by his own acute awareness of the black-white divide, Henry is especially wary. Unflappable Jack cooks up a workable defense, pertaining to the red sequined dress supposedly torn from the alleged victim. But when that strategy gets harpooned, it begins to look like sabotage.
Mamet throws out a heap of intriguing questions, both broadly ethical and specific to the characters. Is Charles — a naive man with a conscience, and hence a liability as a client — guilty or innocent? Did Susan trap them into accepting an unwinnable case to grind her own ax? Was Jack’s extensive vetting of new hire Susan a discriminatory invasion prompted by the fact that she’s black? Why was she hired after lying on her application? Are white men bound by more circumspect behavioral rules around black women? Are issues of disparity an inevitable hazard of black-white relations?
As Jack spells out to Susan with withering condescension, “I. Know. There is nothing. A white person. Can say to a black person. About Race. Which is not both incorrect and offensive. Nothing.” But the playwright clearly enjoys dancing around this minefield, even if he doesn’t arrive much anyplace.
Even more, Mamet savors the antagonistic edge of creating a Machiavellian woman carrying a big mother of an angry chip on her shoulder. But Susan is more plot function than multidimensional character; she plays too much like a reprogrammed version of another distrustful woman who crashes the guys’ power party, Karen in “Speed-the-Plow.” This contributes to a stiffness in Washington’s baldly hostile performance.
Charles is barely more than a cipher, but Thomas’ eternally guileless face maintains the mystery as to whether he’s an ivory-tower innocent or a creep.
The real enjoyment comes from watching the taut verbal interplay between Spader and Grier. Spader is right at home in the smooth, almost likably reptilian role, and he gets most of the best zinger distillations of ruthless pragmatism to come out of a Mamet play since “Glengarry Glen Ross.” His down-to-business phone manner (“Yeah, blah blah the weather and blah blah the market…”) says everything we need to know about this guy’s scant use for personal niceties. It’s slightly implausible, however, that a mind as sharp as Jack’s would be the slowest in the room to smell trouble, which undermines the evolving complications.
Grier works a little harder to strip back the vocal personality to the required affectless delivery. But the constant sparks as his brusque barbs ricochet off Spader’s make it easy to overlook the fact that the writing’s dazzle is all on the surface.
Maybe with further refinement, especially in the third and final scene, this play could be more incisive than just a witty provocation. The bones are certainly there. But as it is, it’s a lit fuse that crackles and pops but never quite explodes.