Richard Thomas, as Charles Strickland, a married billionaire accused of raping a young black woman in a hotel room, is the sole holdover from the original cast.
The law firm to which Charles has shifted his case consists of a white lawyer, Jack Lawson (Izzard), and a black one, Henry Brown (Dennis Haysbert), and a recent hire, Susan (no last name), an attractive young black associate (Afton C. Williamson). Charles has left his previous lawyer, a Jew, because of the more favorable impression a mixed-race team presumably would make on a jury.
Charles insists on his innocence. The two experienced lawyers have their doubts and Susan is convinced that he is guilty for reasons best known to herself. But do the facts of the case, whatever they are, matter? As cynical Jack puts it, “There are no facts of the case. There are two fictions which the opposing teams seek to impress on the jury.”
This wouldn’t be a Mamet play if sex and sexual politics didn’t play a role. More important, however, is how questions of race might influence not only judge and jury but the proposed defense lawyers, who may seem racists if they win the case, incompetent if they lose it.
There are revelations and counterrevelations galore and everything doesn’t always come across as logical, even as the dialogue is often a bit too cutely epigrammatic. Mamet, to be sure, has two modes: the naturalistic one, in which speech is often pause-riddled, stammering, barely coherent; and the comic one, in which people are smarter, swifter, wittier than they would be in real life.
“Race” dances on the cusp between the two modes. Mamet has also directed, keeping the characters moving around aptly, and the tempo cleverly building to minor climaxes.
Izzard, though English, manages to sound, first of all, perfectly American. He does not have the boyish charm of James Spader, who originated the role, but this works well, giving Jack more of the apposite old-fox quality. We can even wonder whether Susan’s youth and good looks affect him more than they would a younger man.
Haysbert, taller, more formidable, more sardonic and even slightly menacing, is more effective than the original cast’s David Alan Grier -- this despite the fact that Haysbert’s diction is somewhat less clear.
Williamson is not unlike the original Susan, guarded and provocative, and perhaps a trifle sexier than was Kerry Washington, albeit with a voice that takes a bit of getting used to.
The play has lost nothing by recasting, which cannot always be claimed for long runs. And whatever flaws it may have, it decidedly holds our interest even if in some minor ways we may feel cheated.
‘I’ll Be Damned’
A rather feeble little musical, “I’ll Be Damned,” picks up the old Faustian theme of a pact with the devil. The present Faust, Louis Foster -- a dopey 19-year-old mama’s boy who doesn’t know how babies are made -- is horribly overprotected at home and rejected by his coevals.
As a result, he sells his soul to the devil in exchange for just one friend, which this somewhat bumbling Satan cannot quite provide. Nevertheless Friendetta, Louis’s favorite comic-strip character, somehow materializes but does not prove much of a friend either.
We even get to Heaven, with some wingless angels and a bald, heavy-set God with problems of his own. Further down, the lesser devils cavort in reasonably uninspired antics. Mom finally joins hands with Satan, who himself becomes the friend - - but you really don’t want to know all that.
Rob Broadhurst’s music and Brent Black’s lyrics, like the book by both of them, is wholly amateurish. Only Mary Testa’s over-the-top performance as Mom achieves some dubious distinction.
Rating: 1/2 *
What the Stars Mean: **** Do Not Miss *** Excellent ** Good * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(John Simon is the New York drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this column: John Simon in New York at email@example.com.