The Downward Spiral of David Mamet

He's America's most influential playwright. But his new play shows how far wrong he's gone

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Sara Krulwich / The New York Times / Redux

Spade, Washington and Grier in the Broadway production of Race

What ever happened to David Mamet? It may seem an odd question to ask about a playwright who is so constantly with us. No fewer than three of his plays--American Buffalo, Speed-the-Plow and Oleanna--have been revived on Broadway in just the past year or so. His terse, fragmented, elliptical dialogue; his rogue's gallery of hustlers, con men and losers; his twisty, shaggy-dog plots; his cynical take on the American dream--Mamet's style and themes have seeped into nearly every pore of American theater. (Non-American theater too: Martin McDonagh, whose Irish black comedies are clear descendants of Mamet's work, has called American Buffalo his favorite play.)

And yet Mamet's reputation as a major playwright rests on a surprisingly slim body of work, rapidly receding into the distance. Only two or three of his plays--American Buffalo (1975), Glengarry Glen Ross (1983) and perhaps his scalding one-act Edmond (1982)--can fairly be called masterpieces. What's more, Mamet, 62, has been on a steady downhill slide for nearly two decades, bottoming out with his labored period piece Boston Marriage, in 1999, and his brutally unfunny political farce November, which landed on Broadway two years ago.

None of which prevented his new play, Race--with its blunt title promising a no-holds-barred look at Topic A of the Obama era--from becoming, sight unseen, the dramatic event of the Broadway season. The fact that, once it was seen, the play turned out to be a dud was not especially surprising. But it was cause for a hard look at whether the playwright's own race has finally run its course.

Like most of Mamet's plays, Race is a relatively slight affair: three scenes, four characters, one unnecessary intermission. It opens with two principals of a law firm, one white (James Spader) and one black (David Alan Grier), quizzing a prospective client (Richard Thomas) who has been charged with raping a young black woman. In Scene 1 the lawyers badger him mercilessly, scoffing at his claims of innocence, dismissing his naive hopes that the legal system might exonerate him. By Scene 2, however, the white lawyer has done a nifty 180 (and managed to negate virtually all of his Scene 1 pontificating) by passionately arguing for the man's innocence on the basis of one piece of evidence: the victim claimed that the accused man tore off her sequined dress, yet no sequins were found at the crime scene. (Perry Mason, you've got nothing to worry about.) The racial politics grow a little more complicated as the focus shifts in the last scene to the play's fourth character, a black legal aide (Kerry Washington) who, in the manner of most females in Mamet's male-dominated universe, turns out to be a snake in the grass.

Almost none of this is plausible, or even logically consistent. In old Mamet, themes and character revelations bubbled up naturally, almost imperceptibly, out of the rambling dialogue--that miasma of indirection, euphemism and profanity that has been dubbed Mametspeak. The new Mametspeak is more like Mametshout: thematic statements imposed from on high and delivered with an epigrammatic stun gun. Racism is universal and unavoidable. ("I didn't do anything." "You're white.") Justice is an illusion. ("The legal process is only about three things. Hatred, fear or envy.") Free will is a joke. ("Why does he want to confess?" "All people want to confess.")

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