PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Race — The Stop-Start Mamet

By Harry Haun
December 7, 2009

Meet the first-nighters at the opening of Broadway's Race.

David Mamet sightings at his Broadway openings are so next-to-nonexistent it almost amounts to a minor miracle that the cast of Race could coax him onto the stage Dec. 6 for the opening-night curtain call at the Barrymore.

Most first-nighters took it for a mirage, this fleeting historic sight of the author-director squirming in the spotlight a full five seconds, shifting from side to side, hands in his pockets, before bolting back into the wings. Photographers with fast lenses probably feared when their film was developed, there'd be no Mamet there.

It was perhaps pushing it to expect Mamet to show up at his own opening-night party. The staff at The Redeyed Grill didn't even bother to assign him a table.

But then, all things considered, it had been quite a day for Mamet. At 4:19 PM the figurative curtain fell on his Oleanna at the Golden, and at 8:14 PM the literal curtain rose on his Race at the Barrymore. The good news, to some minds anyway, is that this eliminates the possibility of confusing the two. Race, despite the title and much verbal fire-and-thunder on the subject being tossed about in the 33-minute first act, is another round in Mamet's on-going Battle of the Sexes which animated, and amplified, Oleanna and Speed-the-Plow.

James Spader, who won three Emmys during his five seasons of "Boston Legal," is the high-priced, wheeler-dealering legal eagle commanding the stage—a sprawling office which set designer Santo Loquasto has lined in law books.

Spader and his African-American associate, David Alan Grier, are interviewing a potential client (Richard Thomas), a wealthy married man in need of black-and-white representation, having been accused of raping a black woman in a hotel.

Lounging wordlessly in the background, her long-stemmed legs dangling lazily over a railing, is Susan (the silent?), an African-American paralegal (the Broadway-debuting Kerry Washington). As distractions go, she pretty much upstages the case, which never gets to court—or, for that matter, out of this room. New and larger concerns arise: cherchez la backstabber.

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James Spader
Photo by Aubrey Reuben
"What I like about the play," said the lady in the case when she paraded before the press on the Grill's second floor (mercifully free from the madding crowd below), "is how complicated it is. My character definitely has the last word—literally, has the last word, which is fun—but I like that these are very, very complicated three-dimensional characters. There is no real good guy, there is no real bad guy."

Like Washington, Spader is only now getting around to his Broadway bow, having hidden out in plain sight on television and in features. He downplayed the lawful connection between his "Boston Legal" character, Alan Shore, and the Jack Lawson he plays in Race. "I don't think they'd get along very well," he contended.

Still, the lawyer suit fits him to a T, and he exudes great credibility and authority wearing it. His side of it: "It didn't have anything to do with law. It really had to do with this material and working with David. The material was something I was so excited about. And, from the very first moment that I met David, there's a feeling of comfort and joy of being there and working with him. I absolutely cannot imagine doing this play without him directing it. For me, it was more than half the experience. I am so grateful. He's a wonderful director. For me, he's as good a director as he is a playwright. The sort of thrilling charge that the material has, David has—and to bring that every single day to rehearsal and to discussion and conversation and, then, to performance—infuses and informs the production."

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Grier was quick to pick up the Mamet pompoms, too. "He loves theatre and the craft of theatre, and he loves actors," he said. "I've worked with a lot of directors where I've come away thinking, 'I don't know if they love actors at all,' but David is a big softie. We cracked jokes a lot. It was a real surprise and joy to work with him."

Previously Grier appeared on Broadway in musicals (The First, Dreamgirls, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), and he considers his record still intact because of the musicality of Mamet's writing. "Even when we go up on our lines, we will improvise to the rhythm of the writing until the other actor can jump in there and get us back on track. It's rare to see this kind of dialogue and conflict going on between two African-American characters—between me and Kerry—who are divided by generation, politics and social world view. To see that and interact and do that on stage—that's what attracted me."

As the accused who kinda becomes the forgotten man in the ensuing verbal donnybrook, Thomas couldn't be happier with his lot. After all, this is a long way from "Last Summer" and Walton's Mountain. "I love this character," he readily admitted. "I think that it's a perfectly written role. There's not a wasted syllable. It's a very minimalist role, which is wonderful because I'm a maximalist actor, so it's great that I get a chance to play such a stark and simple part. It's a difficult role because you have to let the audience think whatever they want to. You can't tell them what to feel about this character. Great challenge, wonderful play."

In his Playbill bio, Thomas notes this is his 51st year as a Broadway actor (he began at 7 replacing Jeffrey Rowland as John Roosevelt in Sunrise at Campobello). "I don't have a favorite role, but I'd have to say Fifth of July is particularly important to me because it's the role that brought me back to Broadway."

As befits Mamet's standing in the theatre world, the opening was properly star-drenched. Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld arrived with wives, and Roseanne Barr came with her TV sister, Laurie Metcalf.

"Amadeus" Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham, stagging it, dutifully returned his extra ticket and party pass and wound up spending the evening in deep conversation with Marian Seldes. Having just wrapped "The Rose and the Rabbit," he's heading for his home-away-from home: "I'll be going to Italy just shortly after Christmas. I have a place in Italy, and I do at least a film a year there."

Daniel Davis, Georges in the interim (2004) La Cage aux Folles and Niles the bulter to Fran Drescher's "The Nanny," mingled among the party guests. "I'm a guest of Mr. Thomas, who is an old and dear friend and his son is my godchild," explained Davis, who's in the throes of coast-switching these days. "I've just moved back to New York. I left Los Angeles, and I've come home." Perchance to work? He smiled. "There's a play in the spring that I have my fingers crossed about."

Michael Mayer, who directed and co-wrote Green Day's American Idiot, which premiered to raves at the Berkeley Rep in September, has his fingers crossed as well. "It will happen at some point," he vowed. "Whether it will be this spring or later—I wish that I had the crystal ball that could tell me . . ."

Harvey Weinstein was at the producer's battle station, viewing the play from the back of the house, mustering smiles of acknowledgement for passers-by.

Also attending the Race opening were Rev. Al Sharpton, Val Kilmer, Gayle King, the cast of The Understudy (Julie White, Justin Kirk and Mark-Paul Gosselaar), Edie Falco, Laura Moss, Tim DeKay of TV's "White Collar," Anthony Edwards, Sebastian Stan, Tony winners LaChanze and Billy Crudup, Josh Lucas, Carol Kane, Alec Baldwin, Tamara Tunie and crooner hubby Gregory Generet (fresh from a couple of sold-out nights at Feinstein's), Michael Feinstein (even fresher from Feinstein's where he just opened his Christmas show with David Hyde Pierce to critical cheers), Stephanie March, Emmy Rossum with Adam Duritz, Keith Powell, Chad Kimball from Memphis, Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller, Judith Light, Andrew McCarthy (too busy directing "Gossip Girl" to act these days), Anthony Mackie, Zeljko Ivanek, Eva Longoria Parker, Victor Rasuk, Penny Fuller, Jim Dale, Jonathan Crombie, Sarita Choudhury and, from The Old Neighborhood, longtime Mamet interpreter Patti LuPone.

The logo for the play is a dark female torso in a tight, curvy sequined dress. At the top of the second act, when the play was still pretending to be about race and getting the case to court, much is made of the rape victim having her red sequined dress torn off, and Washington is asked to wear it. That's not she on the cover of Playbill. The girl in the red sequined dress is a stock shot. In fact, the model was white, and the shot was specially treated so that the skin was darkened. How's that for playing the Race card?