David Mamet's latest play - Race - took a bit of a beating from some when it came out at the end of last year. Some critics contended that while the acting was top-notch, the play's writing was uneven at times and the story took some odd turns.
After seeing the show the other night, I tend to agree with the points the critics have made. James Spader leads a stellar cast of four - that includes David Alan Grier, Kerry Washington, and Richard Thomas - in a show that is intended to provoke and explore the racial tensions that exist in contemporary America. And, we can agree, the play delivers on that promise. Yet, Mamet's chosen entry into the difficult discussion leaves some with ambivalence not over the subject matter at play, but the mechanism to put it on display.
I wish to defend Mamet's theatrical decisions. You see, the problems that critics have zoomed in on have been largely focused on the direction that the play undertakes in the second act, as the drama and discomfort really sets in among the characters. Yet, viewing the play in such a limited scope fails to take into account the larger message that Mamet hopes to impart with this production. It's not the characters' back stories that are important here as much as the conversation they're having before you.
It would be an exaggeration to theorize this play is an important one. At the same time, however, the dialogue and discourse that take place is meaningful and suggestive in a way that some critics have, I believe, mentioned without giving full consideration. This contrast comes into focus at the end when the characters are forced to embrace the reality that they're forever changed by the heated exchanges they've had, despite the overriding fact that nothing - in true reality - has changed in their lives. The threat of, and preparation for, a racially-charged trial propels them to discuss issues that they wouldn't have otherwise. And what they discover along the way leaves them with doubts and, yes, the shame that Mamet puts front and center.
So, to dismiss this play as so-so based on the plot's progression is unfair. The play is not intended to be about the man on trial at all; rather it's an exploration into what erupts when people are forced to finally speak about a topic they're otherwise too fearful of. The action here takes place behind the scenes. Call that Mamet's deceit.