Fighting the Last War

Photo: Robert J. Saferstein

We open with an O.J. joke—an early indicator of the mid-nineties mindset that informs Race, David Mamet’s fleet, fidgety, focused little Sudoku of a “shock” drama. The facts of the case are these: A wealthy white man, Strickland (Richard Thomas), is accused of raping a younger black woman; he seeks counsel, and perhaps a measure of absolution, at a law firm captained by senior partners Lawson (James Spader, white) and Brown (David Alan Grier, brown). Assisting them is lovely, leggy, leery Susan (Kerry Washington), who is also brown but, suspiciously, lacks a highly symbolic surname—and may or may not have been a (gasp!) affirmative-action hire. (Cherchez la femme, Mamet fans.) “Race is the most incendiary topic in our history,” we are informed early on, lest we doubt the stakes. Yet the case itself is a bluff; what little we learn of it sounds remarkably pedestrian. All Mamet really wants to do is put white guilt on trial, which he does, with gusto, deploying the familiar man-man-woman triad he used in Speed-the-Plow and elsewhere. But the boils prodded here feel pre-lanced, the flash points too familiar: Did Strickland use the N-word? Well, of course he did! The play is called Race.

But it might as well have been called Language, which, in Mametland, is all that exists. (When the client worries that a particularly damning quote will be “taken out of context,” Lawson replies dryly, “Well, that is the definition of a quote.”) Characters? Not so much. Lawson (ably embodied by Spader, with only a soupçon of Boston Legal’s Alan Shore) is the only somewhat human entity onstage—Brown is little more than a gadfly/wingman/janitor, and Susan is, well, “fragile,” and therefore treacherous. Sex, race, loyalty, betrayal—it’s all just lecture Legos for Mamet. He makes the ineffable all too effable, and eff you if you can’t take it.

But that’s the problem: We can take it. As a fully networked, fully ironized (if not exactly postracial) society, we’re starting to move beyond words and into sociocultural terra incognita that’s even more inchoate, even more frightening. Notions of otherness, as we have seen in recent months, are coming unyoked from those old, easy-to-grasp slurs and adhering to newer, more slippery memes. Race has jumped from the Newtonian to the quantum, and the theater needs to keep up. Meanwhile, back at the Barrymore, Race’s climax has an almost Jacobean geometry to it, squared off, deterministic, verbal: A white man’s veneer of lordly toleration finally crumbles, and he spits, “Get out of my sight, you fucking ingrate.” His black tester replies: “You forgot to say ‘nigger.’” Ah, but Mamet didn’t, and can he get a “woot! woot!” for that, please?

Ethel Barrymore Theatre.

Fighting the Last War