In 2008 I was fortunate enough to be able to see David Mamet's superb play, November, during its original Broadway run. The play was an absolutely blistering disection of the American body politic in the dog days of the Bush II Administration. Mamet's script, combined with unforgettable performances from Dylan Baker, Laurie Metcalf, and above all Nathan Lane made for an unforgettable evening. I therefore had high hopes for Mamet's latest play, Race. Rather like Promises, Promises, this show is a bit of a mixed bag.
First, to my mind, this just isn't quite as brilliant a play as November – although I have to acknowledge that the subject matter of the latter is particularly close to my heart. Particularly at the beginning of Race there are rather too many comparisons of the court room to a theatrical performance – which point is made with more punch in the musical Chicago – indeed it is really impossible not to see/hear echoes of Billy Flynn in Eddie Izzard's performance as Jack Lawson. Second, the ensemble cast, while still very good, are not quite so outstandingly brilliant as their compatriots were in November, there was the odd fumbled exchange and audibility was occasionally a problem.
Yet, despite these caveats this remains a play that ought to be seen. This is really because of the narrative's second story. Ostensibly, we are concerned with whether or not a wealthy white guy, Charles Strickland (Richard Thomas), has raped a black girl, who may, or may not, be a prostitute. But very quickly the centre of the drama becomes the way in which the two lawyer partners, and the young black Ivy League female graduate they have recently hired, respond to this case. This response becomes a disturbing exploration of the racial lies and deceptions we perpetrate on each other, the assumptions that rule our conduct, the things we cannot say, and the cold hard reality that nobody is immune. Mamet makes appallingly clear the different and devastating powers that skin colour, and, beneath it, America's complex and difficult racial past can still arouse, and the play really catches fire as it explores the effect of the case on the racial perceptions and relationships within the office.
The second point which the play reinforces is Mamet's brilliant command of spoken language. Watching you are gradually sucked into a fascination with these people – Mamet's mastery of the inflexions of the spoken word makes them completely believable. More, his ability to weave in a twist is uncanny. In the first scene of act 2 a debate is in progress about the defence to be pursued with regards to the possible rapist. This pivots seamlessly into an interrogation of Izzard and the hiring process of the graduate student. The conversation shifts, naturally, terribly, and marks Mamet's genius.
I wondered if here also was something about Mamet that one has to accept. It did occur to me afterwards that perhaps a related element of that style is that we are only shown a part of the characters and their story through this medium of debate. The missing elements were a problem for me, as I shall explain a little more in a moment, and while I think there might be some mileage in this argument, it wasn't a problem with November.
For me, it was these missing elements that meant the play didn't completely come off. Most unusually for me, I anticipated the key Act 2 twist in the office relations and I found it a little contrived when it came. Further, precisely because those relationships had really taken over the play, the tying up of the rapist client's story also feels a little tacked on. Yet, for boldness of subject matter, some masterly writing, and some very accomplished performances this is still a play I would highly recommend seeing. It also, as November did, raises the question of why nobody in London seems interested in putting on Mamet's new work - in quality it is certainly far superior to much of the recent new work I have had the dubious privilege of sitting through at the National (the impressive tedium of Fram and The Habit of Art spring to mind). Where's Runnicles would like to see this rectified.
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