The veteran American playwright David Mamet is continually written off as yesterday’s man, but it’s a prime sucker who thinks he can’t come back off the ropes to throw a short, sharp uppercut now and again. Race is a largely satisfying return to form that sees the old prize-fighter looking sharp and hungry.
Set in a seemingly civilised New York legal bureau, all leather-bound almanacs and well-oiled mahogany, the play concerns the preparation for a potentially toxic high-profile rape case – rich white man versus poor black woman. The stakes are high and the truth is as slippery as an eel in an oil slick.
It’s uncertain whether the four actors on stage actually took a breath as they tore into Mamet’s beautifully-controlled and frequently savage dialogue, ripping apart both the case and each other as they scrap it out for alpha-dog status. There is some electric acting, especially when Jasper Britton’s hot-blooded attorney butts up against Nina Toussaint-White’s wilful paralegal. Clarke Peters, who played Lester Freamon in The Wire, is also good, hard as granite and twice as dry.
The dialogue is the stylised spider’s silk Mamet specialises in: by turns aphoristic, jagged, frantic, elliptical and stutteringly repetitive – an acquired taste perhaps, but if you don’t like it, what the hell are you doing at a David Mamet play?
And make no mistake we are in Mamet-world, not the real one. The set-up recalls the sales office/nest-of-rats in Glengarry Glenn Ross, while the subject matter harks back to Oleanna. But this is a vital play too and despite the hard-boiled staginess – it really is a symphony of cynicism – it does address a recognisable version of modern America where the disorienting politics of race are paramount for anyone on the make and where scandal and exploitation are inevitable facts of life. Think snakes and ladders in monochrome.
If Race doesn’t quite make it into the bracket with Mamet’s best work, it’s because the consequences of all the sparring ultimately only affect one man in the room, who as a character is effectively dead on arrival – a bloody play-thing for the others to throw around the office. It is also startlingly short at one hour twenty five minutes, though perhaps if the actors had taken a few breaths, it would have been longer.
By Stuart Black