Mamet's "Race" more entertaining than insightful

Mon Dec 7, 2009 2:12am EST
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By Frank Scheck

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Fans of the television series "Boston Legal" would be well advised to head to David Mamet's new play "Race," in which James Spader is once again doing a crackerjack job of portraying a ruthless lawyer.

But while his character might as well be named Alan Shore, instead it's Jack Lawson who, along with his black partner, Henry Brown (David Alan Grier), is faced with the task of defending a rich white man against charges of raping his black girlfriend. Mamet's work is clearly meant to be an incendiary examination of racial and gender politics a la his "Oleanna." Like that play, "Race" ultimately doesn't quite fulfill its thematic aspirations, but it's a far more entertaining effort that benefits from the playwright's trademark crackling dialogue.

When the blue-blooded Charles Strickland (Richard Thomas) arrives at Lawson and Brown's well-appointed office, he protests his innocence to the suspicious lawyers, who are reluctant to take the case despite the money and publicity it would generate. But their decision is made for them by their young black intern, Susan (Kerry Washington), through a series of seemingly inadvertent technicalities. Mamet is less interested in the legal aspects of the case -- which revolves around the apparent lack of evidence to be found in the hotel room in which Strickland supposedly ripped off the red sequin dress of his victim -- than he is in having his characters deliver profanity-laced pronouncements about the titular subject.

But despite the many provocative attitudes expressed onstage, the play's ideas don't coalesce in meaningful fashion, and the characters, particularly the evasive defendant and the intern with possible motives of her own, never quite come into focus. And with the latter character, Mamet once again reveals the misogynistic attitude that made such works as "Oleanna" and "Speed-the-Plow" so problematic.

Still, after such recent comic trifles as "November" and "Two Unrelated Plays," it's a pleasure to see the playwright once again tackling substantive themes, however inconclusively. Serving as his own director, he has delivered a production so fast-paced and entertaining that its flaws come nagging only after it's over.

Spader, making his first stage appearance after decades of film and television work, is a complete natural onstage, delivering a compelling portrayal just different enough from his work on "Boston Legal" to avoid any charges that he is repeating himself. Grier provides strong support as the blustery partner. But Washington, making her Broadway debut, has yet to develop a strong stage presence, and Thomas is unconvincing in his underwritten role.

<p>Actor James Spader poses for a portrait during a media day for the play "Race" in New York October 22, 2009. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson</p>