Saturday, December 26, 2009


It shouldn't surprise anyone that I'm a terrific fan of David Mamet. He's the only contemporary writer I can think of who puts out there how he sees the world--totally unvarnished, highly cynical, and predictable only to the extent that there appears to be no limit to the venality of many of his best characters. Icing the cake is their extraordinary ordinariness. For example, the real estate salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross are nothing special. They are caught in a no-escape situation and when so trapped, behave like carnivorous hamsters in the cage.

His only weak moments are when he tries to convey an idealistic character such as Karen, played in the original Broadway production of Speed-the-Plow by none other than Madonna. Added to Mamet's seemingly difficulty with capturing the essence of his women characters, Karen never achieves full-dimensional reality.

In his latest, Race, which I saw this afternoon at the wonderful Ethel Barrymore theatre on West 47th St., N.Y., he gives us two lawyers who resemble his usual mainstays--one's white, the other's black, they are partners, and they both seem expert at cutting through all illusions in the best Mamet manner. The other two characters are problem characters--a young black woman lawyer who works with them and has different views of the work, and a white client who poses all the usual problems criminal defendants muster up for their lawyers.

The play has a nice tight plot and some decent interchanges among the characters on the subject most would recognize as the most difficult for any of us to confront. Reviewers have been hard on Mamet, for some reason insisting that he is either too cynical or too presumptuous or too something or other. I felt he tackled a really tough issue and gives us a decent exposition by employing his well-honed ability to cut through a lot of pettifogging and euphemism.

For those of us with a legal background, he also throws around a whole bunch of points and issues, but he subordinates them to the underlying and overarching title subject. This does tend to give the legal side an aura of perhaps less importance and there's some room for argument about how the legal issues relate to the racial ones. Mostly, he is just entirely cynical about the law. Suffice it to say that hardly any party--present on stage or unseen--behaves with any hint of ethics. Law thus to Mamet is merely another field on which the big questions of race may be contested.

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