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.
Danny (Matthew Kern) is a struggling playwright who has never had a play produced. He knows he's onto something with his new script, about a black woman 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; then 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. 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 script 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"; 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.
Andrea White does a remarkably good job with her character, and as her anger at Danny 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; 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, gives an admirably grounded 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 ideas about race and identity politics? A 40-second Key and Peele sketch has more insight.