It is easy to think of The Submission as “Tootsie” for writers. But Jeff Talbott’s eloquent, tedious story is both larger and smaller than the Dustin Hoffman vehicle. Larger, because unlike the egomaniacal Michael Dorsey, The Submission’s protagonist Danny (gloriously self-aggrandizing in Frank DeJulio’s portrayal) is motivated by his beliefs about race and authenticity. Smaller, because what could have been an important commentary on our culture turns into an exercise in Danny’s self-pity.
Danny is an aspiring playwright; a graduate of the Yale School of Drama with, apparently, a PhD in self-dramatization. In the four years since taking his degree he has not been produced, a condition he compares to a death watch. As the story opens, he is showing his latest work to his friend and former classmate Travis (Craig Dolezel). It is a play about an alcoholic woman and her card-shark son. All of the characters are African-American. And it is excellent.
The problem is that Danny is not African-American – or for that matter, a woman, an alcoholic nor, as far as we can tell, a card-shark either. He is as white as Dick Cheney – maybe whiter – an upper-middle-class Yalie who hangs out in coffee shops and appears to live off the income of his lover, Pete (Ari Butler), who works in some unspecified finance industry. So Danny decides to submit his play under an African-sounding name, and, when it is selected for the Humana Festival, to hire Emilie (Kellee Knighten Hough), an African-American actor, to pretend to be the playwright.
You don’t need a degree from Yale to figure out that this decision is an invitation to calamity. Playwriting, unlike, say, novel-writing (or criticism) is essentially a collaborative act. Unless you are Edward Albee or David Ives, the director will propose changes in the new play; the actors will give their lines unexpected spins; and the audience will walk out of the theater with a take which may not have at all been intended by the playwright. Danny’s attempt to control the process at a distance are both funny and horrifying; as actors go in for their auditions he peers at them intently, and then tells Emily what to say about them by text-message. (“Too African-y” he tries to text about one actor, before Travis wisely wrestles his BlackBerry® away from him).
To complicate matters further, Danny has a wide streak of bigot in him – the sort of bigotry which Caucasian failures typically use to explain their own lack of success. When he sniggeringly refers to “The Bl-onys”, which he imagines to be mandatory token Tony awards to African-American actors, the cracks in his partnership with Emilie begin to appear, and by the time of their spectacular final explosion, he is tearfully wheezing against an imagined reign of American theatrical political correctness, in which meritless plays by African-American playwrights are produced (usually in February) rather than better work by white playwrights like himself.
This, of course, is palpable nonsense, and the fact that Danny believes it sets fire to any effort to make him a sympathetic protagonist. For example, of the 206 writing credits given to playwrights this season in the Washington area, only twelve go to African-American playwrights (Talbott is not one of them) – a percentage significantly lower than the percentage of African-Americans in the United States.
The play sets out to examine whether a playwright is entitled to write a story beyond his personal experience. (“What if the right play was written by the wrong person?” it asks the audiences). But that ship has sailed long ago, unless you believe that Shakespeare was actually a Prince of Denmark at some point in his short life. “Write what you know,” is the writer’s maxim, not “write what you have personally experienced,” and for writers, as for most of us, the vast bulk of what we know is what we have learned by observation, or by being taught by others, or by watching television. The problem with The Submission is not that Danny is not African-American, it is that it is impossible to believe that Danny is capable of looking outside of himself to observe and report – as a writer must – on people who are not himself.
None of this is to fault Olney’s production, which on balance is pretty good. DeJulio and Director David Elliot have worked effectively to make Danny be as offensive as possible without becoming a villain, which is consistent, I guess, with Talbott’s intention. Hough is believable throughout, and spectacular in her final confrontation with Danny. Emilie has her own issues, chief of which is the tension between Danny, who she comes to despise, and Danny’s play, which she comes to love. Hough handles the conflict smoothly, never losing track of who she is.
Closes June 9, 2013
Olney Theatre Center
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1 hour 50 minutes with no intermission
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Dolezel – whose Travis eventually becomes Emilie’s lover – and Butler have difficult tasks, in that their characters must both restrain and support the people they love. They both handle these challenges efficiently, and with a minimum of fuss. When Pete eventually throws a temper tantrum, it is funny not for anything he says but because Butler has so effectively presented a man whose principal gift, and tendency, is to smooth roiled waters. Indeed, the only disagreeable portion of the production was the unfortunate decision to play music at the outset of several scenes, partially drowning out the actors’ voices.
And the script, though based on a flawed idea and a terribly flawed protagonist, has a lot going for it: sharp, funny dialogue, sometimes flowing into Clybourne Park territory; three credible characters; and the occasional wise observation. But it suffers from two fatal flaws.
The first is that ultimately the premise leaves no tension to be resolved. Danny has hired Emilie to pretend to be the playwright until the play is produced at the Humana Festival. After that, Danny will reveal himself to be the true author. That’s the way the story must end; there is no getting around it and no matter how much verbal napalm the characters sling at each other we know what will happen.
The second is that – well, let me put it this way. In 2007, Round House Theater presented a play called Redshirts. It told the story of African-American college football players who were permitted to skate on their education to maintain their eligibility for their sport. Their coach was African-American; their antagonist was an African-American English teacher who knew the value of an education for a black person in white America, and insisted that they get one. It debuted at the Penumbra Theatre, which bills itself “America’s pre-eminent African-American theatre” and was directed by the great African-American director, Lou Bellamy.
The playwright is Dana Yeaton. Here’s his picture:
The Submission by Jeff Talbott . Directed by David Elliot. Featuring Ari Butler, Frank DeJulio, Craig Dolezel and Kellee Knighten Hough. Set and costume design: Bill Clarke . lighting design: Chris Callos . sound design: Max Krembs. Dennis A. Blackledge was the Director of Production and Stephen M. Greene was the Technical Director. Renee E. Yancey served as stage manager.