Jeff Talbott’s “The Submission” is maddening and smug, but it begins with a fabulous premise. Danny has just written a play he thinks is dynamite, yet he fears no theater will touch it. It’s about poor black people. The problem is, he’s a gay white guy.
Here comes the unlikely comic twist that the Greeks called the “happy idea.” The script gets picked up for production at the prestigious Humana Festival in Louisville, so the desperate Danny — who submitted the play under the pseudonym Shaleeha G’ntamobi, which he correctly guessed the theater pooh-bahs would accept — hires a black actress named Emilie to take his place.
Her job: Act like she wrote the play. Make the “playwright” seem “authentic.”
Sounds like a zippy satire of the timid American theater is strutting forward, right? Yet Talbott shies away, leaching out the laughter, diverting his gaze from the stage and its discontents. Instead, he goads Danny and Emilie (who initially buys into Danny’s scheme) into self-righteously insulting each other over and over. That way, we can all get our hidden bigotries out on the table.
“B.S.!” Danny and Emilie shout between f-bombs, only not sugarcoating any of it. Both are going “crazier than thou,” as Danny puts it, one-upping the other with who has it worse in society, the gay white man or the black woman.
What started out as sly and funny becomes unbearable once Talbott gets earnest. You can’t believe any of it. Danny wrote an insightful drama about black life? Everybody says so, even Emilie. So why do little racisms like “you people” (and worse) keep dribbling from Danny’s lips? And how can the ostensibly sensible Emilie return serve with such raw knee-jerk homophobia?
The bigger question is what Talbott thinks he’s showing us. Television has been engaging these issues in crisp, half-hour strokes forever. “Avenue Q” did it in a song (“Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist”). By comparison, the wallowing “Submission” is a retrograde mud bath.
David Elliott’s cast at the Olney Theatre Center is facile enough with Talbott’s slangy dialogue. And as Danny and Emilie, Frank De Julio and Kellee Knighten Hough ably make the necessary transformation from personable to repulsively prickly. Craig Dolezel and Ari Butler are fine as Danny’s actor pal and Danny’s boyfriend, Pete, respectively, though the longer the play goes on, the more utterly extraneous these characters seem.
That deficiency is thrown into sharp relief when Pete, sick of the backbiting, delivers what’s meant to be a loopy comic rant about high-strung theater people. It’s a dud because Talbott let that idea go after derailing the humor and switching toward a “Clybourne Park” track. (That’s Bruce Norris’s recent Pulitzer Prize-winning play updating “A Raisin in the Sun” and finding racism festering yet.)
Talbott’s “The Submission” is not to be confused with Amy Waldman’s deft 2011 novel of the same name, which wittily explored the ramifications when an architectural competition for a Sept. 11, 2001, memorial in Manhattan yields a Muslim winner. Like the novel, the play wrings double meaning from its title, as disputants battle to see who will submit. Talbott, a longtime actor, shows a flair for high-handed indignation and hurtful lines, but that’s all this drama unloads.
Pressley is a freelance writer.
by Jeff Talbott. Directed by David Elliott. Scenic and costume design, Bill Clarke; lights, Chris Dallos; sound design, Max Krembs. About one hour and 45 minutes. Through June 9 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd., Olney. Call 301-924-3400 or go to www.olneytheatre.org.