David Mamet’s ‘Race’ on Broadway: What did the critics think?

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These days, not many living playwrights have the clout to launch a new play directly on Broadway. The laws of theater economics are too unforgiving for producers to risk millions on an untested product. Most playwrights don’t have the brand-name recognition that would draw large audiences. But then, David Mamet isn’t most playwrights.

‘Race,’ which opened Sunday night at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, is Mamet’s newest stage provocation and his second play (after the just-closed ‘Oleanna’) to be staged on Broadway this season. ‘Race’ stars James Spader, David Alan Grier and Kerry Washington as lawyers at a successful firm who are called on to represent a white client (Richard Thomas) who has been accused of raping a black woman.

Directed by Mamet, ‘Race’ is one of the most anticipated productions on Broadway this year, thanks in no small part to the playwright’s fame (or, perhaps, notoriety), as well as the celebrity cast. But as those who remember Mamet’s 2008 Broadway outing, ‘November,’ will recall, New York critics aren’t likely to give the Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist a free pass.

So what did the critics have to say about ‘Race’? Judging by this morning’s reviews, there was more than a whiff of disappointment in the air.


Charles McNulty of The Times wrote that the play ‘starts strong but loses steam as the playwright approaches his tinderbox topic more like a journalist anxious to appear balanced than a theatrical provocateur wanting to get beneath all the claptrap.’ He added: ‘Sure, the profanity rips like only Mamet can rip it, but his ideas lack their usual polemical bite and there’s something tentative about the overall vision.’

The New York Times’ Ben Brantley praised Spader’s performance, writing that the actor ‘considers every inflection and gesture in creating the one role in ‘Race’ with more layers than the who’s-scamming-whom plot.’ He wrote that overall, the play ‘lacks real dramatic tension’ and that the cast ‘never acquires that crackling, syncopated urgency that makes a Mamet play sing and sting.’

Variety’s David Rooney called the play ‘slick but hollow’ and added that the plot ‘grows increasingly wobbly as it twists its way to an unsatisfying wrap-up.’ He noted that the real enjoyment in the production comes from ‘watching the taut verbal interplay between Spader and Grier. Spader is right at home in the smooth, almost likeably reptilian role, and he gets most of the best zinger distillations of ruthless pragmatism to come out of a Mamet play since ‘Glengarry Glen Ross.’'

Elisabeth Vincentelli of The New York Post took one of the harshest stances, writing that ‘the most stunning thing about the David Mamet play that opened last night is how clunky it is.’ She noted that ‘the show’s nominally about race, but the elephant in the room is gender... If Hillary Clinton had been elected, would we be watching ‘Sex’ instead?’

Offering a contrary opinion, John Simon of Bloomberg praised ‘Race’ as ‘a high-voltage melodrama that is unafraid to raise painful questions while dispensing prickly ideas and provocative dialogue amid steady suspense.’ He added that ‘play is full of wry jokes, epigrammatic jolts, and acrid, even cheeky provocations, which, depending on the extent of your guilt feelings, can be taken as deserved flagellation or perfervid overstatement.’

-- David Ng