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Broadway review by Adam Feldman
David Mamet’s Race is a play about guilt: what we might call actual guilt, in the sense of culpability for a crime; legal guilt, as fought out in a court of law; and, most important, white guilt. As Jack (Spader)—a lawyer hired to represent a rich white man (Thomas) accused of raping a black woman—puts it to Susan (Washington), his young black associate: “I. Know. There is nothing. A white person. Can say to a black person. About Race. Which is not both incorrect and offensive. Nothing.”
Race is full of such aphoristic staccato, which the playwright, directing his own work, knows how to goose along with wham-bam-thank-you-Mamet speed. And in contrast with much of the author’s flimsy work in recent years, there is active intelligence on display in the play’s dissection of the complexities of racial interaction in America. “It’s a complicated world. Full of misunderstanding,” Jack explains. “That’s why we have lawyers.”
For all the verve of its neo-Shavian back-and-forth, however, Race falters on its way to the finish line. Adept at articulating the play’s issues, Mamet is less successful at dramatizing them. The play is not unlike an 80-minute episode of a televised legal drama (on cable, where they can use the f-word). Its two older lawyers are played well by Spader and David Alan Grier, but they have little dimension beyond their arguments; and the other two characters, who have more opportunity for development, register largely as ciphers. (This is partly in service of the plot’s mechanistic who’s-zooming-whom twists, which are not always believable, but also because of limp performances by the actors portraying them.) Race raises interesting questions, but doesn’t ground them in characters that could bring their complications to life. Isn’t that why we have playwrights?