Go to any museum and you'll find displays of beautifully crafted bowls. Even though they're empty, they're still remarkable works of art.
So it is with David Mamet's Race, now at Beck Center. Well-shaped by both Mamet and the cast, this play seems to have substantial heft. It ignites sparks onstage, and its ideas ricochet around inside your head. But ultimately, it's a dazzling container with too little inside.
Based on the abrupt and no-nonsense title, one would expect Mamet's jabbing, unsparing dialogue to provide a deep dive into the vexing social issues of racial division. But the playwright often just bobs on the glinting surface of this volatile subject, and then he bails out far too soon.
Charles Strickland, a white man with many zeroes in his bank account, is up on charges of raping a young black woman in a hotel. He has found his way to the small law office of two partners, the African American Henry Brown and the Caucasian Jack Lawson. They are assisted by Susan, a black lawyer fresh out of her Ivy League law school.
The two partners immediately sense why they have been picked by Strickland for his defense: Defendants since time immemorial have stocked their courtroom table with people who look as much like the plaintiff as possible. See, he's not racist. Or sexist.
The production quickly gathers steam as Strickland is grilled by the attorneys, who are trying to determine whether they should take the case. Note that the issue is not whether or not he's guilty, but whether the case is winnable.
This is when Mamet is at his best, firing his trademark one-liners that pack intellectual heat, such as, "There are no facts in this case; there are two fictions." And, speaking of the prospective jury, "We want to give them a hook on which to hang their bad judgment."
Due to a mishap by Susan, the firm is forced to represent this client, and so the lawyers dive further into Strickland's psyche. It's not a pretty journey, studded with the playwright's trademark obscenities. Along the way, everyone's motives — including those of all three attorneys — are brought into question.
The play touches on the ever-relevant sore points of white guilt and black shame that always surround racial interactions. And these intersections are often jolting.
But for all its undeniable fireworks, Mamet's script is bookended by a less-than-credible opening and a fairly gutless conclusion. At the start, the lawyers are so aggressively confrontational with Mr. Moneybags that it seems odd, especially for a one-room law firm that probably needs a good payday.
And despite some surprises before the final curtain, Mamet essentially opts out of the über-controversial discussion he has initiated. From that perspective, the curtain falls on this concise 105-minute show (with an intermission) just when the situation is getting really juicy.
The Beck production, directed by the estimable Sarah May, often crackles with dramatic turns that are carved out of razor-sharp beats. Justin Emeka (Henry) and Tom Woodward (Jack) exude slick confidence, although they tend to pick up each other's speaking rhythms. This turns them into a single biracial entity that is interesting, given the theme of the play, but doesn't reveal their characters' more subtle personality folds.
As Strickland, Brian Pedaci mostly serves as a chew toy for the other actors. But he never quite masters this entitled man's quicksilver mood swings from arrogant to abashed and back again. Aungelique Scott is properly inscrutable as the idealistic Susan.
In all, Race is a high-intensity bullet train through a typically cynical Mamet-ian landscape, where winning is all that matters. But the vaporous conclusion only leaves the audience wanting more, and not in the best way possible.