Monday, December 7, 2009



(Photo By Robert J. Saferstein)

Written and Directed by David Mamet. At the Ethel Barrymore Theater.

The bulk of the reviews land squarely in the C- zone. Critics generally agree that Race does not succeed on its own terms and grows increasingly thin as the evening goes on, leading to some poorly set up revelations at the end and another of Mamet's poorly constructed Feckless Woman parts. They still find it quite entertaining, however, and particularly focus on the performance of James Spader. The play's two unqualified positive reviews come from Matthew Murray and John Simon-- who himself has oft faced down accusations of racism and sexism.

Bloomberg A
(John Simon) Mamet, who also directs, has assembled four talented actors -- James Spader, David Alan Grier, Kerry Washington, Richard Thomas -- and a top-notch design team. We get a high-voltage melodrama that is unafraid to raise painful questions while dispensing prickly ideas and provocative dialogue amid steady suspense. Just as in Oleanna, Mamet latches on to a controversial issue, in this case the problem of race as it has affected American politics, jurisprudence, sexual relations and life in general. He has boldly asserted that our 230-year national experience has been a dialogue about race and that the theme of his new play is “race and the lies we tell each other on the subject.”

TalkinBroadway A
(Matthew Murray) This, then, is the most realistic play on the subject we�ve seen in a long time. It�s also a stunning return to original form for Mamet, who doesn�t abandon the show-biz savvy of his middle period (Speed-the-Plow, Oleanna) or the political awareness of his current oeuvre (School, November) while jumping headfirst in the acidic repartee of his earlier, most defining works (American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross). Race cuts deeper, and more frequently, than perhaps anything else Mamet has written.

Chicago Tribune A-
(Chris Jones) Race is wholly watchable. Gripping, actually. Don't believe anyone who argues otherwise. Granted, it is gripping within a dangerously narrow and familiar palette; Race is like a contrived composite of "Oleanna," "Speed-the-Plow" and a TV legal procedural. There are many holes in its dramatic logic. Mamet doesn't so much write plays driven by characters anymore. His shell-like characters are the whores of his ideas. And for all the dramatic provocations (and the brilliant matching of the richly contrasting Grier and Spader), there's a certain weariness that comes from watching the way that "Race" stubbornly ignores any and all differences in generational thinking and reduces its characters' loyalties to the color of their skin. It's a juicily argued reduction, sure, but also a very troubling one. Which is, of course, Mamet's point.

TheaterMania B+
(Dan Bacalzo) Admittedly, much of the first act seems like a string of talking points or jokes about race with very little character development. However, it does lay the groundwork for the terrific second act, in which things get far more personal for the lawyers. A confrontation between Jack and Susan is one of the production's most powerful scenes, and the rapid fire plot twists that develop as the play comes thundering to its conclusion are nicely handled.

New Yorker B+
(John Lahr) The plot, such as it is, demonstrates the contention of Mamet’s Times piece, that “just as personal advantage was derived by whites from the defense of slavery and its continuation as Jim Crow and segregation, so too personal advantage, political advantage and indeed expression of deeply held belief may lead nonwhites to defense of positions that . . . will eventually be revealed as untenable.” In reality, Mamet would be hard pressed to defend his weasel words; onstage, where his story turns on racial profiling by blacks, he can make it seem plausible, if not persuasive.

Village Voice B+
(Michael Feingold) More fluid than in some of his earlier directorial attempts, Mamet's staging keeps the action zipping along, and doesn't seem (as in those earlier instances) to inhibit his actors. Spader, suavely sardonic, makes a strong impression; the hint of smug mannerism that always goes with Thomas's air of injured innocence suits his role handily. The cast's weak link, not overly damaging, is Washington, who hasn't yet summoned the power to project her presence fully. (Mamet, who dislikes overt emotional display in his works, probably hasn't helped.) The evening's showpiece performance—grounded, forceful, funny, and smartly shaded—comes from Grier, swallowing unpalatable news and snapping out equally unpalatable opinions with flamboyant finesse.

USA Today B
(Elysa Gardner) Though Race can be bitingly funny, some of Lawson and Brown's comments threaten to veer into speechifying. Lawson, especially, seems at times to be venting on behalf of the playwright, whose disdain for the strictures of political correctness is well known...Mamet deserves credit for a briskly entertaining, if flawed, study. It is indeed a world full of misunderstandings, and Race offers an absorbing glimpse.

NorthJersey B
(Robert Feldberg) David Mamet has said his new play, Race, which opened Sunday at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, is his contribution to the country's never-ending dialogue on the relationship between black people and white people. But although he makes several provocative points, the racial discussion is one of the least involving aspects of the evening. What's most pungent — and terrifically engaging — is the old Mamet, the creator of sharp operators, men who are cynical, profane and morally flexible.

New York Magazine C
(Scott Brown) 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 all too familiar: Did Strickland use the N-word? Well, of course he did! The play is called Race.

Entertainment Weekly C
The shock is that the author (who previously staged a two-person dramatic tap dance about men and women, truth and lies in Oleanna) elicits little more than a shrug once all the thrusts and parries, revelations and reversals are toted up. The foursome bark out short, blunt, rhetorically provocative dialogue intended to demonstrate that black people and white people are doomed never to understand one another. But the arguments feel like moves on a game board, not words from the heart.

Time Out New York C
(Adam Feldman) 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 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 a ciphers.

New York Times C-
(Ben Brantley) An assured craftsman, Mr. Mamet builds his structure with precision and with what feels like a certain weariness with his own facility. What’s lacking is the fusion of story, theme and character that lends bona fide suspense to his plays. In American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross and Oleanna (which received a less-than-exemplary Broadway production this season), the dialogue is fueled by the desperation of the characters. Much of the excitement in listening to them comes from hearing how their words, initially used as tools and weapons, become their prisons. In “Race” words accumulate less into portraits than attitudes. Obviously there’s a lot at stake for the people of Race, especially for Charles, whom Mr. Thomas portrays with a cunning air of masochistic martyrdom. But there’s only one real character in the play, a paucity you become fully aware of in the second act.

Backstage C-
(David Sheward) it's definitely a mixed bag: At times the dialogue feels like a debate between stick figures representing opposing points of view rather than real people in a situation reflective of our conflicted society. In addition, the setup is somewhat similar to earlier Mamet play[s].

Wall St. Journal C-
(Terry Teachout) The problem with Race is that it's a bit too familiar. Specifically, it plays like a cross between Mr. Mamet's "Oleanna" and his screenplay for "The Verdict." I can't say much more than that without giving away the "surprises" sprinkled throughout the plot, in which two lawyers, one white (James Spader) and one black (David Alan Grier), decide whether to defend a famous millionaire (Richard Thomas) who is accused of raping a young black woman—a decision complicated by the fact that one of their employees (Kerry Washington) is also a young black woman. But those who know Mr. Mamet's work more than casually will likely be able to guess many of the directions in which he takes this conceit, and that's a big part of what's wrong with "Race." In addition, "Race" is didactic in a way I didn't expect from a playwright like Mr. Mamet, whose normal practice is to dramatize the points he wants to make instead of embedding them in lectures delivered by his characters. "Race," by contrast, is full of lectures, most of which are delivered to the younger lawyer by her older bosses, which is logical enough but doesn't make them any less prone to slow down the play's momentum.

Variety C-
(David Rooney) 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.

NY1 C-
(Roma Torre) All the action in this play seems contrived to justify a convoluted premise. And while I can't give examples without spoiling the plot, I can tell you everyone says and does things that, from both legal and dramatic perspectives, don't make much sense. The good news is that it's very well acted... There's no denying the production under Mamet's direction is plenty entertaining and thought provoking. It's just that when you do think about it you realize, despite all the incendiary talk, they're not saying all that much.

Newsday D+
(Linda Winer) The subject, race, could not be more timely. And yet the confrontations have the urgency of pigtail-pulling provocations in the schoolyard. Are we really meant to be shocked to hear that trials are entertainment or that people of different colors get different treatment? The generalizations - blacks have shame, Jews have guilt - are as inflammatory as a routine by Jackie Mason. The real shock of this Race is that Mamet cannot take them and run.

LA Times D+
(Charles McNulty) The play somewhat misleads its audience into thinking that its plot will revolve around the discovery of Charles’ guilt or innocence. The actual story lies in the inter-office dynamics, which grow complicated (and not in a particularly involving way) when suspicions are raised about Susan’s role in the case. Unfortunately, this character — another of Mamet’s female subordinates seemingly out for retributive payback — isn’t well developed. Washington brings a cool and glamorous confidence to the part (costume designer Tom Broecker dresses her as though for a Vogue law-office spread, but there’s something contrived about her motivation.

The Faster Times D+
(Jonathan Mandell) There are a few plot twists, which are meant to keep the audience guessing at the answer to the question “Is he guilty?” and one or two more questions, such as “Whose side is she on?” They are also meant, more grandly, to show the differing perceptions of the world from black and white. But these twists would not withstand the scrutiny of an experienced dramaturg; they don’t make much sense, and are ultimately not very interesting. In any case, much of the 90-minute play is taken up with what are little more than cynical lectures about the legal system, and observations about race relations – about double standards, about what you can say and what you can’t in polite company, about the different perspectives of black and white in America... “Race” is performed by pros — the stand-out here is David Alan Grier; James Spader seems to be playing his “Boston Legal” character minus the humorous quirkiness, but there is a reason why that show lasted on television so long. I cannot find particular fault in the way that Mamet directed “Race” — quick, to the point — just in the way he wrote it.

NY Observer D
(Jesse Oxley) It's all rendered with Mr. Mamet's expected verbal pyrotechnics, but the inherent pleasure of virtuosity aside, the fireworks fall flat. The play is reveling in its subversive political incorrectness, but political incorrectness hasn't seemed flamboyantly subversive at any point in this new century.

Financial Times D-
With this world premiere on Broadway, Mamet continues his descent into smug cynicism. The characters are representative figures rather than people with personal lives – mouthpieces for Mamet’s ideas about the nature of confession, the difference between guilt and shame, and the lies we supposedly tell ourselves about the relationship between races.

NYPost F+
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) The most stunning thing about the David Mamet play that opened last night is how clunky it is. The man's written books about drama and filmmaking, so you'd think his missile against a hot-button issue would at least be well put together. But "Race," which Mamet also directed, is a bewildering muddle. Audiences might expect this type of awkwardly constructed, flailing acrimony from a 15-year-old with a Twitter account, not from a Pulitzer Prize winner.

BB A 13; TB A 13; CT A- 12; TM B+ 11; TNY B+ 11; VV B+ 11; NJ B 10; USA B 10; NYM C 7; TONY C 7; EW C 7; NYT C- 6; NY1 C- 6; WSJ C- 6; BS C- 6; V C- 6; TFT D+ 5; ND D+ 5; NYO D 4; LAT D+ 5; FT D- 4; NYPost F+ 2; TOTAL: 167/25 =6.68 (C)

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