One of my recurring gripes about local theater is that shows touted as "edgy" and "provocative" are usually anything but. This week's offender: The Submission, a new play by Jeff Talbott that's seeing its Portland-area premiere at defunkt theatre.
The Submission is about a struggling playwright, because nothing screams relevant! like theater about theater. (Sorry, Third Rail.) Danny (Matthew Kern) has never had a play produced, but he knows he's onto something with his newest script, about a black woman and her family living in the projects. There's only one "problem": he's white and gay and a man, and he's afraid that no one will accept the play if they know he wrote it. So he submits the play to a prestigious theater festival under a fake name that he thinks sounds black; when it's selected, he hires a black actress, Emilie (Andrea White), to pretend to be the script's playwright, at least long enough to see the play through production.
There's a germ of an interesting idea here, questions that might actually be worth exploring: What's the relationship between author and text? Will we allow a writer to cross some boundaries of race, gender, and sexuality, but not others? Are there characters that white men just shouldn't write about?
But this play isn't interested in these questions. Like, at all. Instead, it's interested in questions like: Is it harder to be a gay man, or a white woman? Which word is more loaded, "faggot" or "nigger"?
In order to address those questions, Talbott has to betray his own characters.
The audience swallows the play's premise—that the play this white man wrote about a black woman's struggles is so powerfully empathetic and realistic that high-profile actors and directors are fawning all over it. And we buy into the tension of the scam that Danny and Emilie have concocted: We're genuinely worried about how this whole thing is going to go down. Problem is, after hopping onboard with the premise, we're informed that Danny is a total racist. Like, big time. (At one point he says that a dark-skinned actor is "too African" to be cast in his play; that his skin "wouldn't pass the paper bag test.") And though she's otherwise perfectly smart and open minded, Emilie has a homophobic streak that comes out whenever she and Danny butt heads. In several pitched fight scenes, the two argue whether it's harder to be gay or black; and even more annoyingly, who's got it easier in the contemporary theater world. (I was tempted, instead of a review, to just post this.)
Andrea White does a remarkably good job with her character—initially easy-going, she's provoked beyond belief by Danny, and as her anger rises it's almost plausible that she'd resort to homophobic slurs in order to take him down. But Matthew Kern endows Danny with a seething, steely-eyed smarminess that makes the character's alleged genius even harder to believe; and moreover, he has trouble connecting with the other actors—he's hardly on the same stage as White or Matthew Dieckman, who, as Danny's best friend and Emilie's burgeoning love interest, gives an admirably grounded, present performance.
The Submission gets in a few laughs—Talbott's got a good ear for a punchline—but I found the show as a whole heavy-handed and strident. And as for its "thought provoking" ideas about race and identity politics? A single 40-second Key & Peele sketch has more insight.
The Submission runs at defunkt theatre, 4319 SE Hawthorne, Thurs-Sun 7:30 pm (Thurs& Sun pay-what-you-will), through Nov 16, $15-25