Your Above the Law editors spent Sunday afternoon watching a group of talented players in a high-stakes battle. A veteran of the field locked horns with a newcomer.
No, we’re not talking about the Vikings-Saints game. We saw James Spader, David Alan Grier and Kerry Washington play lawyers in a matinee performance of David Mamet’s Race, which opened on Broadway last month.
Spader and Grier play Jack Lawson and Henry Brown, the name partners of Lawson & Brown, a high-profile criminal defense firm. Kerry Washington plays Susan, a fresh-from-law-school associate who is new to the firm. A powerful and rich white man accused of raping a black woman drops by, hoping to have the firm take his case.
The short play — it has two acts, but comes in at under two hours — takes place in the firm’s war room, a conference room lined with books that will look familiar to ATL readers. The Lawson & Brown attorneys discuss whether to take the case and what their strategy should be.
Obviously, we think the legal world is an exciting place, and we are always thrilled to see lawyers get dramatic treatment. Unless the treatment is terrible.
This treatment was impressive. Perhaps it helped to have two lawyers, Peggy Hill and Georgetown law professor Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz (Lat’s law school classmate), as producers.
Check out our reviews, after the jump.
Sanchez … has Braylon Edwards … And they’re not going to catch him, touchdown Jets!
Oh, wait sorry, about that Broadway show I saw during the AFC Conference Championship game …
Mamet makes the case in favor of law firm diversity in about ten minutes. The rich white client originally sought representation by accomplished trial lawyer Nicky Greenstein (I supposed Mamet thought naming the guy Yitzhak Ben Judah would have been too obvious). But after that relationship falls through, the client turns to Lawson & Brown specifically because the firm has a black partner. When the point was made on stage, I wrote “eat it, ATL commenters” in my notebook.
If the first ten minutes make the case that diversity makes good business sense, the rest of the play explores how having a diverse team of lawyers can make for better legal representation. That’s right, I said “better,” because part of Mamet’s point is that race plays a role in everything. And everybody has prejudices. In Mamet’s world, Lawson and Brown are better positioned to understand how their client will play to a jury and the general public because the firm has a diverse set of voices contributing to the strategic discussions.
Needless to say, I enjoyed this portrayal. Mamet gets bonus points for having his two black characters disagree about certain racial issues. At one point early on, Henry Brown (Grier) tells Susan (Washington) that she “let her color jump on her intellect.” It’s a wonderful way of explaining what happens when color blinds you.
Having established that race plays a role in everything (if you’ve read my True/Slant column, you’ll know that this is a point I already agree with), Mamet unfortunately fails to say anything particularly insightful or interesting about race. Race plays a role in everything? Welcome to the party, white man. Do you have anything else to add? No? Well okay, thanks for coming anyway, there’s punch and pie on the table.
Unfortunately, I’ve been to law school. That means that the part of my brain that would allow me to appreciate a play set at a law firm without worrying about it’s portrayal of the law and justice has been destroyed. Luckily, Race generally gets it right. The few legal concepts in the play are handled well. The actors are convincing as prominent criminal defense attorneys.
But deep down, David Mamet clearly thinks that there are moral absolutes, and he is ultimately hopeful that the justice system can produce the “correct” outcomes. He seems to believe that lawyers, you know, care about the “right” outcomes. And that all sounds to me like the kind of crap you’re likely to hear from a 1L. Mamet is cynical but hopeful, as opposed to cynical and beaten. It’s a subtle difference, but people who have practiced will pick up on it.
Like I said, I enjoyed the show. All the bits worked together, and as an added bonus, Kerry Washington happens to be smoking hot. But at the end of the day, I’m not sure if Mamet’s Race contributes anything particularly meaningful to the conversation about race in this country. Entertaining and not much else is by no means a criticism, though; by the end of the first act, I completely forgot about the football game.
If you haven’t seen the Oscar-winning film Crash, then go see Race. If you’ve already seen Crash, Race’s grappling with questions of prejudice and stereotypes isn’t going to feel very fresh. So rather than expecting a delivery on the play’s title, just go to enjoy the superb acting of Grier, Spader, and Washington.
After playing attorneys in Secretary, The Practice, and Boston Legal, Spader has nailed the lawyer portrayal, able to discuss ruthless trial strategies without coming across as a total douche. But warning: James Spader is difficult to recognize at first. He has pulled a Luke Wilson.
At points in the play, it felt like it would have been more accurately titled “Race and Gender.” The use of the c-word and the partners asking Susan to don a red sequin dress to reenact a rape were major plot points. Critic Elisabeth Vincentelli wrote in the New York Post:
The show’s nominally about race, but the elephant in the room is gender. The issue’s on Mamet’s mind, even if he claims to go after another target. If Hillary Clinton had been elected, would we be watching “Sex” instead?
Gender relations are on his mind. Mamet wrote a New York Times editorial about race and his play last year that likens our society’s arguments about race to a marital fight.
Thankfully, though, Mamet’s play is more entertaining than listening to a married couple bicker.
Race is highly entertaining and well worth seeing. Mamet may not say anything particularly original about the subject of Race in America — after having race at the center of our national consciousness for a century or two, it’s a bit difficult to do that — but the play is tremendously well-acted, especially by Spader, and Mamet’s dialogue is as zesty as we’ve come to expect from him.
I was more intrigued by the play as a meditation on the legal profession and lawyering (as opposed to a meditation on race). Mamet turns out a few gems of generalization, especially in the first act. Here are a few:
- “The law is not an exercise in metaphysics, but an alley fight.”
- “The legal process is about three things: hatred, fear, and envy. And you just hit the trifecta.”
- “It’s a complicated world, full of misunderstanding. That’s why we have lawyers.”
“I thought it was to do justice.”
“You thought wrong.”
The truth of these statements is debatable — and that’s the whole point. Whether you agree or disagree with these quips, they’re all provocative and interesting. If you see the play with fellow lawyers, you’ll be sure to have lots of fodder for a post-show discussion about what it means to be a lawyer. [FN1]
Another great line from the first act, essentially describing high-stakes litigation as something of a game, goes something like this: “There is no fact, only competing fictions.”
Now that is an observation we suspect most seasoned litigators would agree with. If you’re one of them, though, you might be disappointed by the ending. We don’t want to include any spoilers, but suffice it to say that Mamet concludes the play in a way that suggests there are lots of hard facts out there (despite the attempts of lawyers to obscure them, as well as the smoke and mirrors of racial and gender politics).
[FN1] There’s also a nice remark, uttered by Lawson (Spader), that many Biglaw partners might adopt as their own during the Great Recession. When Susan objects to what she perceives as unfair treatment, he responds: “What are you bitching about? I gave you a job.” He then goes on to complain about the challenges of running a firm capable of supporting all its lawyers.
So that’s what we thought of Race. Check out the play for yourself to form your own opinion. You can read more about it, and order tickets, via the links collected below.
Disclosure: We received complimentary tickets to the show (and they were very good seats).
Race on Broadway [official website]
We Can’t Stop Talking About Race in America [New York Times]
In Mametland, a Skirmish in Black and White [New York Times]
No Winner in ‘Race’ [New York Post]