Thursday, December 17, 2009
My friend Trixy and I left the theatre after seeing the world premiere of David Mamet’s newest play, Race, with lots of questions. Unfortunately they weren’t the good kind provoked by a challenging work. They were the “why did?” and “what abouts?” prompted by all the contrivances of the plot, which revolves around the guilt or innocence of a middle-aged white man accused of raping a younger black woman.
Mamet’s play is black and white, literally and figuratively. He paints broad generalizations that basically boil down to two extremes, that all black people hate all white people and that all white people are afraid of and/or feel superior to all black people. Dramatic tension is definitely missing.
As for the accused, Charles Strickland, I didn’t care, what with Richard Thomas’s bland performance. He’s supposed to be a wealthy and famous man, but he has none of the air of confidence that would have engendered. He’s also ill-served by costume designer Tom Broecker with a horribly fitting suit that makes him look more like an accountant or middle manager than an affluent man. He’s a nonentity around which three lawyers have to make a case.
The attorneys, James Spader, David Alan Grier and Kerry Washington (in photo with Spader) are the opposite of bland. They are one dimensional, so angry and cynical as to be unbelievable. They also are never still. Mamet, who directs his own show, has them walking back and forth, up the few steps to the law books and back down again throughout the slightly more than 90-minute running time. In a play that’s all talk, talk, talk, all that walking doesn’t give an illusion of action. It’s just distracting.
And watching them circulation about Santo Loquasto’s set made me concerned about their well-being. Loquasto should be given the sadist of the year award for what must be the most raked stage in town. I haven’t seen one that extreme in years -- decades. When I was at Back Stage I did a story about the dangers of raked stages, based on a report from a chiropractors group. Dancers suffer the most, but even actors in straight plays do harm to their backs just standing and walking on raked stages. I interviewed set designer Tony Walton for that piece and he said he loves to use raked stages because they thrust the action right at the audience. Since Race offers nothing worth thrusting, Loquasto should have given the actors a break with a level floor. Poor Washington gets the worst of it because she has to wear what look like five-inch heels. I hope these actors have daily message therapy built into their contracts because they’re going to need it.
This is the second Mamet play on Broadway this season. Oleanna, about a possible incident of sexual harassment involving a college professor and one of his students, closed recently.
Tickets to Race, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, may be purchased at the box office, 243 W. 47th St., and by calling (212) 239-6200. For more information, visit RaceOnBroadway.com/.