Playwright Imposter Goes Off-Script in “The Submission”

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Review: The Submission

By Perry Tannenbaum

A gay white playwright and a black actress walk into a bar… Not a promising lead-in to a joke, because nothing funny or violent should happen. Writers who pen scripts about racists or homophobes for theatre, film, and TV usually draw a free pass when we ask ourselves if they might be harboring prejudices of their own. Same with the actors who appear in such productions. Surely they are as progressive and tolerant as the authors who create their roles.

Maybe more progressive and tolerant than we are.

In Jeff Talbott’s The Submission, currently at Spirit Square in a Three Bone Theatre presentation, we can trash those presumptions – under circumstances that would ordinarily strengthen them. Talbott’s protagonist, white gay playwright Danny Larsen, has written a drama about a black alcoholic mom, her cardsharping son, and their struggles to escape the projects. Takes some empathy to do that, right?

Danny has never had a play of his produced before, but he thinks this one might be special. His best friend Trevor agrees, so Danny submits his street saga to the prestigious Humana Festival, hoping that he will be among the elite few whose work will be premiered at the annual New Play Festival in Louisville. But to make sure his whiteness doesn’t become an obstacle in recognizing the merits of a play with black leads, he invents the African name of Shaleeha G’ntamobi to become its author.

When Humana phones to tell Danny that his script has been selected for the New Play Festival, he could own up to his subterfuge right then. But – reasonably or not – Danny is afraid that the prize will be withdrawn of he comes clean. So he temporizes, saying the playwright isn’t at home, and hurries out to hire an actress to impersonate Shaleeha.

It takes a few moments before the chosen actress, Emilie, can grasp Danny’s intentions – and for Danny to convince her that there’s no kinkiness involved. Wile Danny has demonstrated considerable empathy toward black people, Emilie is honestly impressed with the play, despite the playwright’s fears that he has trespassed onto forbidden territory. Plenty of goodwill on both sides.

Yet things go badly after the first meeting. Danny has a number of personal insecurities, more than a little buyer’s remorse, but worst of all, casual prejudices against black artists that he hasn’t faced up to. They begin to pour out during a second meeting – at a coffee shop, not a bar – when Danny refers to black actors as “blactors” and the awards they win as “blawards.” The unsavoriness of that viewpoint is compounded for me by the signals I get from Danny that feels entitled to speak his mind so brusquely because he’s Emilie’s employer.

Emilie doesn’t listen to these slurs passively – unless you construe a response like “You’re so full of shit your eyes are brown” as deferential. What began as a mutually beneficial relationship has already degraded into an uneasy détente. As the pre-production process unfolds in Louisville, with Danny missing out on all the little perks of close contact and communication with the big-name artists converging on the festival, Danny’s resentments and jealousies heat up and his attitude toward Emilie becomes more toxic. Dropping the director’s nickname can set him off.

No doubt about it, the balance of my sympathies went out to Emilie as she kept drawing Danny’s scorn for merely doing what he hired her for. Even when some of Emilie’s anti-gay attitudes surfaced, things didn’t even out for me, because some rational thought verifiable observation was actually mixed in with her resentment – and because Danny goes nuclear in their final verbal faceoff.

If you can see this explosion coming, the venomous crossfire may feel a wee bit overlong, and I was not very convinced by the way Talbott has Danny handling the aftermath of his festival acclaim. But director Sidney Horton keeps the action as taut as possible, and Scott A. Miller keeps us fascinated with each new slimy twist of Danny’s personality. We can believe that the same insecurities inside Danny that produce such aberrant attitudes might also produce great art.

On the other hand, Talbott has incorporated some entertaining – and dramatic – complexities into Emilie. In her Charlotte debut, Lechetze D. Lewis captures all that’s engaging and spontaneous about Emilie and all that’s strong. Not only does she deliver a groupie’s euphoria while she’s mingling with theatre royalty, she adds an extra dollop of giddiness as romance blossoms between her and Trevor. You don’t really marvel that a free spirit like this would go off-script when she’s supposed to read Danny’s acceptance speech.

But is she more cunning and All-About-Eve than she first appears? That’s a big question Talbott keeps nicely float, helped by Lewis’s pugnacity.

Trevor is caught in the middle of the crossfire as he becomes more seriously involved with Emilie. He’s somebody who readily grasps Danny’s blind spots, and Daniel Henry perfectly calibrates his weakness as a right-minded peacemaker – so I completely bought his allowing himself to be told to shut up while the main battle raged.

I’m not sure that Talbott didn’t intend Pete, Danny’s CPA-like partner, to be more of a clueless hunk. Yet Horton’s somewhat outré casting choice, Dan Grogan, keeps things very real during the marital infighting. Though Pete remains a needless appendage in the plot, he’s a stuffy outsider who makes our badly behaving protagonists seem more palatable. There’s an intentional poetic justice when Grogan’s best moment happens while he’s offstage. He’s that untheatrical.

Talbott is appealing with his self-regarding cleverness, particularly when Danny’s play mirrors his own. But more often, he seems intent on wearing the David Mamet mantle for faithfully transcribing Generation X. Sentences from these 28-year-olds repeatedly proceed after multiple false starts and loose fragments, often getting tangled in multiple detours before reaching a period – particularly when Miller deftly navigates as Danny. Every person onstage, especially the artists, seems compelled to drop at least two f-bombs with every breath.

Peppered with fucks and the occasional shit, the dialogue at Duke Energy Theatre doesn’t shock me so much as irritate me as The Submission barrels along. If this tedium and annoying effect are the crux of Talbott’s point, he’s making it too obliquely. And if he’s trying to assert that effing Gen-Xers really effing talk this way, I do not effing agree.

But selfies of a hot actress’s boobs messaged to her boyfriend? In the age of Anthony Weiner (and Snapchat), I wouldn’t be shocked to learn it’s happening right now.

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