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Fern Siegel: Stage Door: Race, 39 Steps

December 25th, 2009, 09:12 pm admin Leave a comment Go to comments

Playwright David Mamet is renown for his profane, lightning-fast dialogue, tough characters and elaborate plot twists. Vintage Mamet leaves audiences stunned by his verbal dexterity and cynical sensibilities. His ability to confront searing issues (sexual harassment, Oleanna, greed and desperation, Glengarry Glen Ross, and Hollywood’s artistic depravity, Speed-the-Plow) is legendary.

Never one to shy from provocative themes, his latest play, Race at the Ethel Barrymore, sounds incendiary, but fails to deliver a knockout punch. This four-character drama stars Jack (James Spader) and Henry (David Alan Grier) as legal partners — one white, one black — asked to defend Strickland, a white billionaire (Richard Thomas), accused of raping a black woman.

Strickland insists he’s innocent; Jack worries the case isn’t winnable. As the smart, savvy defense team, Spader and Grier deliver the goods. Their snappy exchanges, which address the nature of racial shame and guilt, ring true. Spader is adept at world-weary smugness, while Grier, usually cast in comic roles, flexes his dramatic muscle with ease.

Mamet, no fan of political correctness, has Henry challenge Susan, the firm’s young African-American associate (a wooden Kerry Washington), whose personal biases may have stacked the legal deck. When Susan reminds her colleagues that the case is about sex, not race, Jack shoots back, “What’s the difference?”

That is, until, in typical Mamet style, more is revealed. As the two lawyers skillfully debate the case, Race reveals its real purpose: Not the guilt or innocence of Strickland, but the discomfort and distortions that define race relations in America. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough dramatic tension here to justify the absurdly short production; for all its promise, Race feels more like an episode of “Boston Legal” than an expose worthy of its author.

By contrast, The 39 Steps, which ends its Broadway run Jan. 10, takes a well-known Hitchcock film and transforms it into stage comedy. If you haven’t seen it, correct the oversight. The cast has changed since opening; the value hasn’t. Now at the Helen Hayes, The 39 Steps is played for laughs, rather than dramatic high points, though it creatively adheres to the original script: an innocent man wrongly accused of murder, must stop an international spy ring and clear his name.

The show is a salute to economical stagecraft and an adroit ensemble. Three of its four cast members play a dizzying array of parts: 150 in all. Sets and costumes are by Peter McKintosh and direction by Maria Aitken, both masterful at making the most of a few props. The use of doors and windows is a minimalist delight. Every cliché is sent up; every moment mined for humor.

As Richard Hannay, the wronged man, Sean Mahon is perfectly cast. Jill Paice plays three different women so well it’s hard to believe it’s the same actress, while Arnie Burton and Jeffrey Kuhn, who don endless roles with lightning speed and agility, are marvels. 39 Steps is a must for Hitchcock fans and an artistic reminder that less is more.

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