Race -- Theater Review

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The new cast of David Mamet's "Race" represents a perfect example of how to inject fresh life into a long-running Broadway show. Replacing original stars James Spader, the Tony-nominated David Alan Grier and Kerry Washington are Eddie Izzard, Dennis Haysbert and Washington's understudy, Afton C. Williamson. The mesmerizing results demonstrate that this legal drama should prove catnip to actors in subsequent productions.

Upon second viewing, "Race" proves no less problematic or contrived in its depiction of the efforts of a racially mixed law team to defend a rich white man against charges of raping his black girlfriend. Although clearly meant to be an incendiary portrait of how racial attitudes affect all human interactions, the play's ideas never coalesce in sufficiently thoughtful or meaningful fashion.

But there is no denying the playwright's gifts for creating colorful characters and especially compellingly stylized dialogue, both of which are on ample display here.

As Jack Lawson, Spader was in fine, ripping form, but his performance was necessarily hampered by his character's resemblance to Alan Shore, the ethically challenged lawyer he played so memorably in "The Practice" and the long-running "Boston Legal."

Izzard has no such associations. The performer, still best known for his stand-up work, has been building an increasingly impressive resume of acting credentials through the years that has not garnered sufficient attention. Adopting a flawless American accent, he delivers a smooth, understated turn that beautifully conveys the character's cagey, ruthless smarts.

Making his Broadway debut, Haysbert -- best known for his President David Palmer on "24," not to mention his ubiquitous Allstate Insurance commercials -- is less overtly comical than the naturally funny Grier as the black partner. But his massive physical presence and deep bass voice give him natural stage presence, and he provides an air of quietly thoughtful menace that ratchets up the tension in fine fashion.

Williamson fulfills the demands of her role admirably, but like her predecessor, she is hampered by the playwright's continued inability to create female characters who come across as anything other than one-dimensional and schematic.

Continuing in his pivotal if underwritten role as the sleazily racist defendant, the cast-against-type Richard Thomas, skillfully playing against his wholesome image, has only gotten better.

Venue: Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York (Through Aug. 21)
Cast: Eddie Izzard, Dennis Haysbert, Afton C. Williamson, Richard Thomas
Playwright-director: David Mamet
Scenic designer: Santo Loquasto
Costume designer: Tom Broecker
Lighting designer: Brian MacDevitt
Presented by Jeffrey Richards, Jerry Frankel, Jam Theatricals, JK Productions, Peggy Hill & Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz, Scott M. Delman, Terry Allen Kramer/James L. Nederlander, Swinsky Deitch, Bat-Barry Productions, Ronald Frankel, James Fuld Jr., Kathleen K. Johnson, Terry Schnuck, The Weinstein Company, Marc Frankel and Jay & Cindy Gutterman/Stewart Mercer
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