In The Submission, a young, gay white playwright writes a play about an African-American family struggling to escape from "The Projects" and submits it to the Humana Theatre Festival under the pseudonym of a black female to increase its chance of acceptance. Complications ensue.
These complications - and there are many - stem organically from the initial plan to deceive, but are compounded by playwright Danny (Ross Bautsch) hiring black actress Emilie (Candice D'Meza) to impersonate the presumed playwright. The resulting events are both realistic and hilarious, perhaps best expressed by Emilie, speaking of Danny: "But this is exactly the bed he made, so he can just suck it up, put his little bleached bung in the air and bite his pillow." The dialogue is salty but the narrative is both masterfully amusing and also deeply serious in its insights into complicated issues.
The writing, by new playwright Jeff Talbott, is simply superb, balancing comedy with character study, merging sophisticated views on racial and gender-orientation issues with all-too-human weaknesses, all explicated with wit which evolves into raw vitriol as tensions mount. The essential conflict is between Emilie and Danny, but Talbott enhances the narrative with Danny's best friend Trevor (Darcy Cadman) and Danny's live-in lover Pete (Matt Benton). All are excellent actors, and create portrayals that pulse with authenticity.
Bausch as Danny captures an uptight, intense artist, increasingly tortured by seeing his work identified with another. He provides a vivid portrait of a man ensnared by his own misguided intentions. In Emilie, playwright Talbott has created a compelling portrait of an intelligent, high-spirited and very forthright woman, and D'Meza does her justice in a riveting and nuanced performance. Cadman brings a sense of balance to Trevor, torn between loyalty to Danny and a close relationship with Emilie, and makes him likable and interesting.
Benton's take on Pete is hugely theatrical, which is a polite way of saying "over-the-top". He portrays the type of gay man, screaming and hysterical, about whom other gay men say: "It's people like him who ruin it for people like us." This must be what director Jordan Jaffe (and perhaps the playwright) wanted, and Benton has the range to provide it, but it is strangely ajar in a play which deals so sensitively with issues of bigotry and prejudice. It does pay off late in the play in a rant from Pete about "theater" that is comically priceless. But it doesn't mesh with the otherwise realistic tone of the production.
The pace is rapid-fire, directed with flash-point velocity by Jaffe, artistic director of Black Lab Theatre. Set changes are handled deftly and are intriguing in themselves. The costumes by Macy Perrone are both interesting and plausible, and the set dressings by Claire A. Jac Jones identify the various locales with brilliant simplicity. But here the play is the thing, and it is a wondrous thing indeed, taking us on a most-enjoyable roller-coaster ride along the path described so well by Sir Walter Scott: "Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive." The Submission received both the 2011 Laurents/Hatcher Award and the 2012 Outer Critics Circle award - deservedly.
Sharp, incisive comedy blends smoothly with genuine insights into complicated issues, in a writing tour de force that will leave you both breathless with laughter and intrigued by its revelations, brought to vibrant, exciting life by wonderful acting and direction. This is a must-see theatrical event.
The Submission continues through January 27, from Black Lab Theatre, at Frenetic Theatre, 5102 Navigation Blvd. For ticketing and information, call 713-417-3552 or 713-515-4028 or visit the theater's website.