In the theater, where your first impression is often the only one you get, matter takes second place to manner. Academics' dismay notwithstanding, the way of doing a thing usually means more to spectators than the thing itself. This explains, for example, the public's endless craving for megastars and meister-directors. One reason A Streetcar Named Desire gets constant revival is its embodiment of the theater's struggle: Blanche and Stanley are like two feuding co-directors, trying to restage, redesign, and rewrite the story of the Kowalski apartment in antithetical terms. Stanley, physically stronger and more truthful, wins the apartment; Blanche proves the primacy of manner over matter by winning the big exit and the audience's hearts. Stanley's blunt truthfulness turns out to be, like everything else onstage, an effect, fine when used in the right place, but otherwise a painful intrusion.

David Mamet's new play, Race (Barrymore Theatre), is all blunt truthfulness—some of which, this being a Mamet play, naturally turns out to conceal lies, or to mask deeper, darker truths. Played fast, under the author's direction, its 80 or so minutes feel like a speedy round of post-Shavian ping-pong. Debating whether or not to defend a rich man (Richard Thomas) accused of rape in what's apparently a clear-cut case with racially inflammatory content, a mixed-race pair of law partners (James Spader and David Alan Grier) and their female assistant (Kerry Washington) rattle around in their spacious office like video-game pieces powered by an unseen joystick, zinging Mamet's poison-dart lines at one another. The end is a Mamet end: Somebody lied, somebody betrayed the side, nobody wins.

What's new, for Mamet, is the intellectual explicitness. Ideas are discussed in all his major plays, but the characters discussing them are mostly half-educated, half-crazed, or half-distracted by the situation, so that the ideas themselves tend to peter away into the surreal wordplay of colloquial conversation. The three legal brains of Race and their upscale client, in contrast, are all educated folk with their wits about them, even when angry or distraught, and their parts of speech in full working order. The play is post-Shavian in its freedom from Shaw's Victorian gentility of diction and in its terse willingness to let unresolvable matters go unresolved. Like Shaw, though, Mamet doesn't substitute expository lecturing for dialogue: The discussion, provocative and at moments incendiary, comes from the characters, with their partialities and blind spots built in.

Mamet's post-Shavian law firm: Spader, Thomas, and Grier in Race
Robert J. Saferstein
Mamet's post-Shavian law firm: Spader, Thomas, and Grier in Race

Details

Race
By David Mamet
Barrymore Theatre
243 West 47th Street, 212-239-6200

This
By Melissa James Gibson
Playwrights Horizons
416 West 42nd Street, 212-279-4200

A Streetcar Named Desire
By Tennessee Williams
BAM Harvey Theater
651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn 718-636-4100

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More fluid than in some of his earlier directorial attempts, Mamet's staging keeps the action zipping along, and doesn't seem (as in those earlier instances) to inhibit his actors. Spader, suavely sardonic, makes a strong impression; the hint of smug mannerism that always goes with Thomas's air of injured innocence suits his role handily. The cast's weak link, not overly damaging, is Washington, who hasn't yet summoned the power to project her presence fully. (Mamet, who dislikes overt emotional display in his works, probably hasn't helped.) The evening's showpiece performance—grounded, forceful, funny, and smartly shaded—comes from Grier, swallowing unpalatable news and snapping out equally unpalatable opinions with flamboyant finesse.

Finesse is the word, too, for the best aspects of Melissa James Gibson's This (Playwrights Horizons). Here, a basically conventional situation—the heroine's guilt over her one mad fling with a married friend—gets treated with such elegant subtlety that all distaste for its conventionality is dispelled, even though it's basically no more than a contemporary update of a Kay Francis movie. Using a variety of devices to lure you in, often shifting perspective to cast new sidelights on her material, Gibson carefully eschews the sentimentality that would have made her story seem kitschy; instead, her characters take on depth and dignity.

Occasionally, Gibson contrives a touch too baldly—her tormented souls just happen to have as their best friend a gay memory expert—or overworks a verbal tactic. Long stretches of beautifully vivid writing fall into brief gray patches of repetition, which might easily have been trimmed out except that her director, Daniel Aukin, was apparently fixated on some peripheral, and thoroughly superfluous, fancy business involving set pieces. Luckily, these minor visual nuisances can be ignored, since Aukin hasn't neglected his central task: getting from his cast five uniformly affecting performances, rich, detailed, and sensibly unshowy. I said "uniformly," but Louis Cancelmi's excellent French accent deserves a few extra points, and Eisa Davis's singing deserves a great many. Gibson's title, incidentally, though perhaps unhelpful for marketing, is exactly right for her script, which describes a condition to which nobody involved wants to put a name; our awareness that the pronoun is the best they can do carries a built-in pathos.

Streetcar itself, currently on view in a production from Sydney starring Cate Blanchett (BAM Harvey Theater), demonstrates that it can get along nicely without pathos. Harsh-toned, slow, and occasionally a little crude, the staging, by Liv Ullmann, sometimes magnifies Tennessee Williams's strokes of casual realism, like the elevated train that thunders past the Kowalski residence, into giant symbolic stature, giving the play a slightly stilted air. Instead of hurting, this only makes us realize how iconic everything in Streetcar has become, worldwide.

Blanchett's Blanche is an icon pushed to the edge of its pedestal. A perfect summation of the role for first-time Streetcar riders, to an old hand her extreme, frenetic approach—this Blanche is well on her way to breakdown from the start—explains the play's grip on pre-Stonewall gays, evoking decades of drag-queen appropriation of the role. (Cf., for instance, the "Miss Destiny" sections of John Rechy's City of Night.) Inventively (Scandinavianishly?), Ullmann has her stress Blanche's sense of shame, though unwisely letting her give in too easily, slackening the tension: You've never seen a Blanche struggle less with Stanley in the rape scene. The supporting cast is solid, as is Ullmann's production, for all its eccentricities, but this show is distinctly about the star, from her appearance in the opening moment to the omitted last line as she exits.

mfeingold@villagevoice.com

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