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Review: Mamet returns to form in 'Race,' then trips up

'Do you know what you can say to a black man on the subject of race?" the black attorney asks the rich white defendant. "Nothing," answers the accused, perhaps convinced, but maybe not.

Whether David Mamet is himself convinced, well, we never know. The more troubling question is whether, ultimately, we end up caring what he thinks in "Race," the attractively cast, surprisingly stale new play that tries to draw blood by picking at old scabs with a blunt instrument.

On the bright side, "Race" is infinitely more enjoyable than Mamet's most recent Broadway premiere, "November," which attempted to take on presidential politics by making dopey jokes about corruption and turkeys.

In that way, "Race" is a welcome return to the lean, cruel, crackling Mamet, the one fascinated with the challenge of both eviscerating and admiring the undersides of ethical pretense through the dance of poetic dirty talk. And with James Spader as the white lawyer and David Alan Grier as his black partner, the playwright, who also directs, has found himself a finely matched pair of exuberant mouthpieces. They're carnivores who clearly enjoy the verbal chase, even if, this time, Mamet doesn't give them the wit necessary to move in for the kill.

Richard Thomas, a subtle actor capable of real danger, isn't given much to do as the wealthy married man accused by a black woman of rape. He comes to the law office (handsomely lined with wood and books by Santo Loquasto) to get the team - an integrated firm of successful street fighters - to take his sensational tabloid-ready case.

Meanwhile, watching from the library balcony, is a beautiful black woman, played with aplomb and legs like weapons by Kerry Washington. Like the student in "Oleanna" and the temp in "Speed-the-Plow," this is one of Mamet's least appealing obsessions - the conniving young female subordinate who appears to be around to learn from the men.

This time, she is either a new lawyer or a paralegal - apparently, it isn't supposed to matter. Whichever, she is there to go on errands for the bosses and, as both a woman and a black person, to be the vehicle of guilt, suspicion, fear and desire - and affirmative action.

The subject, race, could not be more timely. And yet the confrontations have the urgency of pigtail-pulling provocations in the schoolyard. Are we really meant to be shocked to hear that trials are entertainment or that people of different colors get different treatment? The generalizations - blacks have shame, Jews have guilt - are as inflammatory as a routine by Jackie Mason. The real shock of this "Race" is that Mamet cannot take them and run.

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