To any actor, playwright or director, David Mamet's plays have become part of what can now be called "required theatrical reading". This is not to say that the plays have to be liked, but it is fair to acknowledge Mamet at least as a productive and vital contributer to the modern theatre over the last 30 years. What is most definitive, no doubt, has been the very style in which he writes. From his earliest plays until now, the rythyms, the pauses, and the sheer flow of his plays have remained the same, regardless of subject. Yet, despite the rhythmic sameness, there are different phases of Mamet. In early Mamet, (American Buffalo, Glengarry, Lakeboat) there was a focus on the downtrodden, the hustlers, the workingclass. Plays seemingly written by someone who could have easily been one of the characters. Then there is Edmond, my personal favorite, centering on a dissillusioned man subjecting himself to the underbelly of society that he has been oblivious to, which ultimately veers into greater themes of alienation and self-identity. And in plays such as Oleanna and the most recent Race, there is the overt commentaries, plays in which character is sacrificed more obviously in favor of the issues at hand.
In the case of Race, the issue is, yes, race...AND the law. Set in a surprisingly old looking firm, old even for the age of the firm given within the play (20 years), Race centers around 2 law partners (played respectively and very well by James Spader & David Allan Grier) and their decision to take a case in which a respected white man (Charles Strickland, played by Richard Thomas) is accused of raping a black woman. The issues thrown into the air during a brisk and brief 1st act are the racist comments allegedly spoken by Strickland, the circumstances of the rape itself and how the case can be defended by this firm after it was dismissed by another. These are issues which call into question if the case is truly "winnable", for as Spader's Jack Lawson claims, every case can be won,...provided that you select a "winnable" case.
The first act sets itself up to be a play of similar didacticism to Oleanna. Yes, the subject is clear, the pace is furious, and the dialogue seems clearly from the playwright's cynical opinions as opposed to actual characters. By the 2nd and much longer act, however, the play does open up and offers greater complexity, as the involvement of a black intern (Susan, the only character without a last name, incidentally) played by Kerry Washington comes into play, though I won't divulge how.
Ultimately, for a Mamet play to rise above his style, his dialogue must be infused with the proper emotion and energy by a game cast. To that end, he is served well by Spader and Grier, whose byplay is the primary virtue of the production. They manage to convey knowledgable brutishness, not unlike many other Mamet men, yet do not become handcuffed by the expected Mamet-like delivery that seems to always be overly adhered to by the women in his work. In this case, Kerry Washington falls prey to a similar technical restriction, as if she watched Lindsey Crouse in House of Games one too many times. Of course, she is not aided by a critical character that is more symbolic than human, not unlike the Student in Oleanna or the Secretary in Speed-the-Plow. For that reason, Race ends on a weaker note than it should. Yet despite that, the play does move along and remains of interest in its execution and, of course, its perpetually relevant subject.