David Mamet is routinely praised for a dramatic language that is both stylised and naturalistic in its repetitions and incompletenesses, but he has grown increasingly imprisoned by these linguistic expectations. Boston Marriage in 1999 was his last major play not to be set in a professionally or socially restrictive environment (and even that is arguable). Race, from 2009, is his second play this century located in the legal world following his dire courtroom farce Romance (2005), which seems an easy way out for the Mametian twists of argument. Putting them in the context of attorneys formulating a case gives events a ready-made stake, rather than having to imbue them with a drama of their own.
Race is a play about truth, justice and the American way, except that the first two are consistently shown to be mutable at best if not wholly illusory, and that very wispiness is what constitutes the third. Two law partners, one black and the other white, discuss whether or not to accept a defence brief for a middle-aged, rich white man accused of raping a young black woman. The lawyers’ assistant is also a young black woman. In some ways it is a legal rewrite of Mamet’s 1988 Speed-the-Plow, with the assistant turning out to be far more crucial than she at first appears – except, of course, that those that have seen the earlier play are already alert to that likelihood, and the drama is diminished.
What remains is argument. Argument about … well, that title isn’t in any way misleading. Mamet’s thesis, such as it is, is that race is not just an inevitably hot topic, but a prism through which it is impossible ever to see straight or clearly. To the extent that this is true, it is a truism. However, as with political correctness in Romance, Britain’s experience of racial issues is not charged along the same lines as the US’s. Mamet’s comments are neither as intellectually valid here nor as emotionally charged, unlike those of, say, Bruce Norris’s drama about race and property in America, Clybourne Park. Terry Johnson’s production is agile, with Clarke Peters and especially Jasper Britton on fine form as the counsellors, but they remain arguments on legs rather than characters, and Mamet has little of interest or import to tell us.