By Kirk Woodward
[My friend Kirk Woodward went to see David Mamet’s Race on Thursday night, 22 April. Since I’ve seen so little theater this season, I asked Kirk to tell me about the production, which is directed by the playwright, and Kirk has allowed me to post his report. ~Rick]
I saw David Mamet’s new play Race at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in Manhattan, and I often felt I was watching not so much a play as an essay on Mamet’s playwriting, his style of directing, and his theories about acting.
The play takes place in a law office. We meet three members of the firm: two are law partners, played by James Spader (of Boston Legal fame), and David Alan Grier (first familiar from In Living Color). Spader and Grier are white and black, respectively. (Curiously, in a play about race, Mamet doesn’t delve into the complexity of the relationship between these two – what made them start the firm, how have they managed to work together for so long, what is the real racial dynamic between them?) Also in the firm is Kerry Washington as a young, black female associate.
Into this mix comes a wealthy man, played by Richard Thomas (The Waltons), looking for lawyers to defend him against the charge of raping a black woman. It wouldn’t be fair for me to give away the mysteries of the plot, such as they are, but the case is not open-and-shut, so the challenge of crafting a defense brings all sorts of racial issues to the forefront. These issues are not trivial: can the races ever be comfortable with each other? How do women’s issues relate to racial issues? Can whites and blacks ever live without taking advantage of each other? For that matter, can anyone?
To some extent, even race is not the ultimate subject of this play. Mamet’s plays are often about fierce competition, and that’s the case in Race, too. It’s always a dog-eat-dog world out there for him. So in that sense the play fits firmly in the Mamet canon. Another way it fits is that Mamet is well known for writing aggressive, punchy, clipped dialogue.
But in Race the dialogue is so clipped that I halfway suspected that Mamet first wrote a longer play and then cut every third line or so. “Elliptical” (defined by my dictionary as “expressed with extreme or excessive economy”) barely begins to describe the effect of the dialogue. Ideas dash furiously past each other. You can practically hear the lines themselves gasping for breath. The result is mentally strenuous, and in a sense stimulating, but the pell-mell haste calls attention to itself and pulls the viewer, or at least this viewer, out of the play.
However, I doubt that Mamet would object to that result. For Mamet, I suspect, the stage is a platform in more than one sense. Mamet directed Race in a style that I can best describe as “stand and deliver.” The actors, particularly in the first act, say their lines rapidly to each other in firm, emphatic tones. The lines don’t seem to spring from emotional sources; in fact, “emotion” is hardly the word the play evokes at all, even though its situation has a high emotional charge.
This effect is consistent with Mamet’s theories on acting, which he has documented himself. In his book True or False, Mamet insists that only two things should happen in a rehearsal period: “1. The play should be blocked. 2. The actors should become familiar with the actions they are going to perform.” This approach reminds me of a story Uta Hagen tells in her book Respect for Acting. As I recall, she tells of a director giving a well known actor a series of instructions for a scene, like “Stand here, then cross there, and look at her.” “I will,” the actor says to the director, “and meanwhile I’ll do all those things they pay me for doing.”
As this story suggests, we are used to seeing actors take their lines as starting points for emotional exploration. Mamet will have none of that. It’s not an actor’s duty to emote, he says; it’s an actor’s duty to present. The results are there to see in Race. For me the effect is bloodless and restrictively intellectual – a Thinker’s Theater, if, of course, you can think that fast.
A case can be made that Mamet’s approach is a useful reminder that the “standard” American acting style, out of Stanislavski by the Actors Studio, is not the only style possible. The excesses of “method acting” are well known, and alternative approaches to acting exist. But whatever the underlying technique, I find I want to see people on stage, not speakers. Back in the eighteenth century, people would talk about going to “hear a play.” Today we talk about going to “see a play”; even more than that, I want to feel a play. This fact may well be a result of my conditioning, but there it is.
Interestingly, I find that the actors in the play feel the same way. The acting style is not consistent – and I suspect the play would be close to unbearable if it were. (Or perhaps not – Race is short, and has an intermission it doesn’t need. It’s almost a long one-act.) I don’t usually pass along theater gossip, or at least I try not to, but I have it on reliable authority that after Mamet left town, the actors in Race began to do what actors do – to allow the conflicts in the play to affect them emotionally.
In other words, by the time I saw the play it contained some “Mamet” acting and some “regular” acting. So the first act of Race is more in Mamet’s style, and the second act more in the style of realistic acting we’re accustomed to. James Spader, a remarkable actor, is particularly moving as his character realizes he is flummoxed, not just about the case but about his understanding of life as a whole. David Alan Grier and Kerry Washington also expand the emotional worlds of their characters as the play goes on. (Richard Thomas’s role does not call for the same kind of development.)
And then the play stops. I am reluctant to say it “ends;” it simply turns out the lights. The effect, if I may use an analogy, resembles the moment at the end of the Beatles’ song “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” when the music abruptly vanishes in mid-measure. “There’s no ending,” as someone said to me.
In a sense Race is about moral ambiguity, so isn’t it appropriate for the ending of Race to be ambiguous? And do the strands of a play’s plot always have to be neatly tied up in a ribbon? Or did Mamet simply stop writing? Ellipsis may be a style. It may also be an evasion.
[For the record, Race began previews on 17 November 2009 and opened officially on 6 December. The producers announced on 21 April that the show has recouped its entire $2.5 million investment, the second play this season to do so. The play is scheduled to complete its Broadway run on 13 June. Look for Kirk’s next contribution to ROT, “Kirk Woodward’s King Lear Journal,” 4 June.]