At the opening of “The Launch Prize,” four students of different ethnic backgrounds divide up a gallery space with tape, divvying up the natural resources — that is, floor area and wall space — as precise allocations within a closed system.
Later, one of them describes the group as “the American Dream in four walls.”
If so, it’s an American Dream in which representatives of different cultures battle each other over a finite number of prizes. In this case, it’s the titular one — a prestigious award that confers a year of subsidized globetrotting and art-making.
Local playwright MJ Halberstadt’s four-hander is now receiving a riveting world premiere by Bridge Repertory Theater of Boston under the direction of Tiffany Nichole Greene. It’s a topically fresh play of ideas, yes. But it’s also a tightly wound drama in which barely a word or gesture feels superfluous. And while these four characters clearly serve as vessels for contrasting points of view that already live outside of the play, there are enough raw nerves and fresh scar tissue here to keep audiences engaged with this particular story.
The setup is that four art students at a prestigious New England college are hanging work for their thesis show shortly before receiving their MFAs. They quickly discern that one of them has won the coveted Launch Prize, and speculate about who it is.
Kim (Katharine Chen Lerner) is a Chinese-American who applied for the prize under the assumed name Tuesday Last because, she says, she doesn’t want art viewers to interpret her work in light of her “super-Asian last name,” Hsiao. Michelle (Angela K. Thomas) is an African-American fond of self-portraiture who outlined in her application a plan to tour Africa with the prize money.
Sebastian (Bari Robinson), described as “half-Mexican,” says Michelle’s work and application amount to “prize bait” because the committee is looking for a winner who will boost its reputation for recognizing diversity. Austin (John Tracey) is a white guy of Irish descent put in the unfamiliar situation of considering his ethnicity and sex as a liability. “You mean I won’t win because I’m white . . . and not transgender?” he asks incredulously at one point.
Through a playwriting conceit, Halberstadt shuffles and then reshuffles the deck, allowing us glimpses at the different ways race and sex may or may not have played out in this situation.
Greene uses the intimate setting of Deane Hall at the Calderwood Pavilion to good effect, seating the audience on three sides of the action in a way that all but invites it into the conversation. These four actors exhibit sharp interplay, whether creating the din of overlapping arguments or the tense silence that follows an ill-chosen word. Thomas’s Michelle is strong and confident, Lerner aptly renders Kim’s vacillations (and aptitude for a humorously barbed rejoinder), Tracey plays Austin as at least a half step behind everybody else, and Robinson’s Sebastian is buoyed by cocky self-assurance.
The complicating factors of romance and friendship add dramatic heft to what could have been a shrill, didactic exercise. The point/counterpoint does sometimes feel too much like a guided seminar through the issues of privilege and race, but at its core the play is not a red-lettered thesis statement but rather a look at how four people choose to live their own demographic identities. There’s a lot here to recognize; Halberstadt admirably captures the mix of (un)friendly competition and simmering resentment that can inform any group of professional peers.
Neither the very existence of the play nor the ways audiences receive it can be fully disentangled from a social context that has various forms of privilege embedded within it. Let’s stipulate that there’s something inherently problematic about a white theater critic applauding a white playwright for how he talks about the complications of race in America. But it’s better to acknowledge the fact than to suppose that ignoring it makes it vanish.
THE LAUNCH PRIZE
Written by MJ Halberstadt. Directed by Tiffany Nichole Greene. At Deane Hall, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through March 20. Tickets: $40, 617-933-8600, www.bostontheatrescene.comJeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.