"It's only a bullet if you load the gun with it," says Danny, a playwright. He's referring to the N-word, but he might as well be describing the shortcomings of The Submission, a play by Jeff Talbott. The story has plenty of ammo: It centers on Danny, a gay white playwright who has written a moving drama about a black family in the projects and, in a bid to increase its chances of being produced, has submitted it under the patently ridiculous pseudonym of Shaleeha G'ntamobi. When the play is actually accepted at a theater festival, Danny enlists a black actress to pose as the playwright. The bullets—all the racial and homophobic slurs you'd expect, pitched during debates about who corners the market on oppression—are there. What's missing is the gun: a robust dramatic framework to give those munitions any firepower.
Absent that, Defunkt Theatre's season opener, directed by Andrew Klaus-Vineyard, winds up talky but toothless. At the beginning, Danny (Matthew Kern) is buoyant and hopeful. As harebrained and potentially dangerous as his scheme seems, there's reason to root for him. But as the play clumps along, Danny proves to be an utterly callous, out-of-touch, racist lout. He rails against Black History Month, colorblind casting, affirmative action and the "Blonys" and "Bloscars"—token Tonys and Oscars handed out to undeserving black performers. Talbott provides no reason for Danny's outrageous insensitivity, and Kern's oily and arrogant portrayal hardly helps. "I didn't write it," Danny says about the play. "It wrote itself." That, we're left to assume, is the only way such a racist cretin could have written such an empathetic piece of theater.
Other performers fare better, particularly Matthew Dieckman, who is honest, wry and grounded as Danny's good friend. But the entire cast is hampered by Talbott's script, and the characters' inability—or flat-out refusal—to listen to each other grows grindingly frustrating. It doesn't help that it's a play about a play: The constant discussion of Danny's incredible work only casts the flaws of Talbott's script in even sharper relief. From a nonsensical line about Hitler eating kugel to racist remarks that fail to add anything new to the conversation about race in American theater ("He's too African-y," Danny says about an actor), The Submission has plenty of talk but astonishingly little to say.
SEE IT: The Submission is at the Back Door Theater, 4319 SE Hawthorne Blvd, 481-2960. 7:30 pm Thursdays-Sundays through Nov. 16 (no show Oct. 31). $15-$25 sliding scale, Thursdays and Sundays are âpay what you want.â