Review - Race: If You Could See Her Through My Eyes

"I didn't do anything."

"You're white."

That's what justice, at least in this particular case, boils down to in playwright/director David Mamet's emotional button-pusher, Race. The truth is irrelevant and the winning side is the one that can make its fiction the most believable.

On Monday, Race will be the only new play running on Broadway. A week from Monday it will be the only play on Broadway period. And while I wasn't especially fond of Race when it opened in December, the boisterously responsive audience with which I took in a performance from the play's new cast suggests this one might be in for a very healthy run.

Newcomers to Mamet will probably find Race more interesting than those familiar with his other works. All the characteristics that satirists use to spoof the style of the author's more familiar plays are there; the clipped, testosterone-driven dialogue, the uncensored language, the self-centered characters with a cold, unsentimental view of the world. Race is a bit like what would happen if the professor from Oleanna was getting legal advice from the Hollywood execs of Speed-the-Plow.

But in replacing three of the four cast members with actors who give very different takes on the characters, Mamet, who also directs, has given the play an interesting new angle and a surprisingly healthy dose of vulnerability.

But first, a recap: Richard Thomas, the only holdover from the original cast, plays Charles Strickland, a wealthy white man accused of raping a young black woman in a hotel room. He's left his previous attorney and is now asking black and white partners Henry Brown (Dennis Haysbert) and Jack Lawson (Eddie Izzard), men with a reputation for winning by any means necessary, to take on his case. He insists he's innocent but the attorneys are more concerned with the guilt and anger Americans feel when confronted with black vs. white situations than they are with the facts. Observing and assisting is a young black associate, Jack's protégé, Susan, played by Afton C. Williamson. The Situation regarding how she came to be hired by the firm also comes into play.

As with Oleanna, this is more of a theatrical discussion than a play. The characters are representatives of points of view and make provocative pronouncements that can stimulate lively post-theatre conversations. ("There is nothing a white person can say to a black person about Race which is not both incorrect and offensive. Nothing.") But unlike James Spader and David Alan Grier, who cruised the dialogue along at a confident, articulate, masters-of-the-universe pace, Izzard and Haysbert give us partners that perhaps are not as accomplished as the previous pair. The rough edges of Lawson and Brown suggest the boys have much more to lose this time around.

Whereas Grier's Brown was a dark-humored shark, Haysbert gives us a no-nonsense pit bull; dominating discussions with deep-voiced directness. There is no finesse to his Brown's style but he sure ups the tension of the evening. As his partner, Izzard's version of the character also lacks the slickness of his predecessor's interpretation. Hints of panic and confusion visibly rise as he finds himself trapped corners that his talent for quick-thinking thought he had covered. The biggest gain to the play is the addition of Williamson, who began the run as an understudy. She adds texture to a role that might seem underwritten with slight slips from Susan's professional manner that hint at a more streetwise past. The clashes between her and Brown, both verbal and silent, resonate more forcefully as the two black characters suspiciously evaluate each other's method for survival in their white-dominated world. Thomas continues to impress in his small role, projecting the proper privileged naiveté that is almost comical in its earnestness.

The play's strength lies in its cynical humor ("It's a complicated world full of misunderstandings. That's why we have lawyers.") and explorations of the complexities of plotting a defense. But the conclusion, at least in Mamet's world, is predictable, even if the motivation for it is unclear. Race surely entertains, but for an issue-related theatre piece it tells us nothing we haven't already heard. However, those who enjoyed the play the first time around are likely to find a visit to see this new company's take on the material very worthwhile.

Photos by Carol Rosegg: Top: Eddie Izzard; Bottom: Dennis Haysbert and Richard Thomas.

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