Friday, November 20, 2009

The Great Black And White Way

Back tonight from New York and started in on the effort to catch up on TV from the past week. I'm a little confused by the strategy in this week's Survivor. Also there was a typo in one of the subtitles that said the word "feasable". Yikes. Putting that aside...

I stood in line at the TKTS booth in Times Square last night and had my choice of a quite a few different shows. Having seen a number of ads on TV, my colleague and I settled on tickets for David Mamet's new play, Race. It actually opened for previews last Friday. It is a four-person play with big name actors. It deals with a rich white man (played by Richard Thomas, Broadway veteran and Emmy-winner as John Boy on The Waltons) who is accused of raping a black woman. He comes to a law office to ask them to defend him. The office consists of two male partners, one white (James Spader) and one black (David Alan Grier), and a younger black female associate (Kerry Washington). The lawyers discuss whether or not they want to take the case and also whether or not they could win it.

It's a short play (two acts consisting of three total scenes and probably about ninety minutes if you don't count the intermission), but it is, as is often the case with Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross, among many others) funny, frank, and powerful. It deals with questions of racial shame. Do black people hate white people? Do white people feel shame about their relationships with black people? Do black people feel shame about their hatred of white people and themselves, for how easily they are victimized? And so on. The writing is superb, as one would expect. Even in so short a play, I can think of at least four lines that caused the audience to clap and cheer so loudly that the actors had to stop for a second. The language is beautiful, even the frequent obscenities, which are used more as punctuation and emphasis than for gratuitous shock value. Similarly, the choreography stands out, with the movements -- or sometimes lack of movement -- accentuating the dialogue and tension.

It's in previews, so there are still some kinks to be worked out before opening night. Most notably, Washington, making her Broadway debut, seemed lost in the first act. She, so much smaller than the men, had a hard time projecting her voice and acting at the same time. Thankfully, she improved greatly in the second act, really catching a groove. If she hadn't, two of the crucial moments of the play would have fallen short as she is set one-on-one against Spader. Yet she held her own and the confrontation worked. Spader, for his part, slipped on a couple of lines. Still, he is a great actor and not only recovered, but gave a great performance. With those small slips from the others (except Thomas who is not in it quite as much), Grier stole the show. Although known for comedy, he is a classically-trained actor and it showed. His comic timing also helped on a number of lines.

I don't go to a lot of shows and I go to even fewer plays. I'm pretty sure it was the first non-musical that I've seen on Broadway. So while I was blown away, leaving with a feeling in the pit of my stomach because of how powerful the play is, I wasn't sure if I'm really just a sucker with no "refined" taste. However, the standing ovation was given freely by the audience and a lot of people who seem to go to a lot more shows than I do were buzzing, as we left, about what a hit this play is going to be. I agree, if people have any sense. It's not only well-written and well-acted, but it made me think and I still can't get parts of it out of my head. Can't ask for much more than that.

So there you go, my turn as theater critic. Back tomorrow as we resume our regularly-scheduled program.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have seen RACE twice already and love this new Mamet play. Your review was excellent and I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment. We may have seen the same show because Mr. Spader had a slip or two when I saw the show, but in all fairness he has about twice the amount of dialogue as anyone else in the cast. As you said Mr. Grier is nailing his role and James Spader was excellent. I am hoping Kerry Washington grows into the role by opening night. Both of the performances I witnessed received standing ovations and they were well deserved.