Which turned out to be a good thing. Because Mamet doesn’t have very much new to say. His plot revolves around a law firm—whose senior partners are a white lawyer and a black one—that has been approached to represent a rich white man who is accused of raping a black woman. In typical Mamet fashion, there is also a quixotic young woman—in this case, a black law associate—who upsets things.
The lawyers’ debates over whether they should take the case and how to defend the client provide the opportunity for Mamet to sound off on his feelings about race and about how we do and don’t talk honestly about it. This is valid stuff. As the Reid case shows, our sensitivities about the subject and the awkward inadequacies of the words we use to explain them can make it hard to have a meaningful conversation about race. But from the O.J. Simpson verdict to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright kerfuffle that bone has already been well gnawed.
Of course well-trod ground has produced good plays before. The problem here is that Mamet seems less interested in cultivating drama than in spouting polemics (click here to read an essay he wrote on race relations). His characters aren’t really people but three-dimensional placards. Some of the things they say are amusing. Others intentionally provocative. And, this being Mamet, a lot of it is profane—including, of course, use of the N-word. But because Mamet is so careless about the plot (an over-reliance on coincidence is just one of his crimes) it’s hard to care about his mouthpieces. Which undercuts what they're trying to say.
Mamet directed the play himself, which doesn’t help. A good director can bring a fresh eye to a new work and the questions he or she asks can help a playwright sharpen things. Mamet—and the rest of us—could have benefited from having someone else besides himself to talk to. I also wish there had been someone else to work with the cast. James Spader as the seemingly-cynical white lawyer gets off best, but he’s had practice in a similar role during his years on TV’s “Boston Legal” series. He also has enough talent and stage presence to have brought something more to the part if he’d been given better guidance.
Despite a degree from the Yale School of Drama, which is prominently noted in his Playbill bio, David Alan Grier has spent much of his career doing comedy and so he works too hard to show how no-nonsense the firm’s black partner is (click here to read a piece about his approach to the role). Kerry Washington, the pretty girl in dozens of movies, looks good here too but is too callow in her Broadway debut to bring home the goods in the climax of the play. Richard Thomas, who I’ve seen do really good work in the past, fares even worse. His rich guy is awkward and totally unconvincing.
As is usual on Broadway, the audience the night K and I saw the play was largely white but there were a good number of blacks—including the legendary R&B songwriters Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson—sprinkled here and there. The white folks laughed with relief at the jokes; the black folks seemed to have tighter smiles on their faces. But at the end everyone stood for a standing ovation. And I saw people from both races engaged in deep discussion as they left the theater. But not with one another.