Find better words. As writers it is something that we are constantly challenging ourselves to do; find another way to say something, finding a different phrase or an alternate way to get our message across. It often proves to be more than just a challenge, as a discouraged young playwright soon discovers as Olney Theatre Center presents Jeff Talbott’s The Submission. This riveting drama spins a fast-paced story that delves into the recesses of political correctness regarding race and sexuality in the world of writing a play. And while everyone has done a play about writing a play, this is a completely different and exciting new approach to the much larger thematic elements that are encompassed within the text.
Danny, a gay white playwright, is on the verge of success as his new play gets accepted to the nation’s most prominent theatrical festival. But there’s just one problem, everyone thinks that his stirring new work, which tells the story of an alcoholic black mother and her card shark son trying to escape the projects, is written by Shaleeha G’ntamobi, an African-American female who doesn’t exist. The plots twists and turns are sharp and poignant; the play itself is laced with controversy and is a compelling new piece of theatre that raises a plethora of questions in the audiences mind. Provocative and engaging this is a Must See production.
The production is mounted at Olney’s Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab, giving it the unique tennis-court staging. Scenic Designer Bill Clarke designs two bookend style set pieces that enclose the playing space making the journey much more intimate as it unfolds. Clarke’s design work is reminiscent of a pop-modern art deco scene with the colorful rectangles which then serve the dual purpose of being coffee-chain store signs. The pullout beds keep the space compact and the demarcation barrier that splits the stage is clearly defined with two simple stools.
Director David Elliott executes a smooth production if it does run a bit long. There are moments during the cross-fade scene changes, which are brilliantly underscored with pulsing rock-style music (designed by Max Krembs) where the play loses momentum and drags a little. A few of the shorter scenes also have a tendency to drag despite the quick pacing of the dialogue, the problem occurring when dramatic pauses or moments of silence take place as they feel awkward and unnatural. Elliott also has some blocking issues early on in the performance, which resolve themselves by the end, but leave the actors wandering about in the scene without any clear sense of boundaries to where the scene space stops and starts. It also leaves the actors looking a bit lost in moments when they could be otherwise engaged as opposed to simply pacing or meandering.
The play itself is an extremely well-written piece of theatre. So rarely does a controversial work come along and can be viewed for more than the controversy that it brings to the table. The dialogue between the four characters is a constant build of dramatic pressure and changing circumstances that really invites the audience to consider what’s being presented. Talbott is master with blending topical controversy into a relevant medium and his sporadic use of flavorful language only enhances the intensity with which the story is told. He touches on key points that strike a chord in all of us, using four well developed richly dynamic characters as the vehicle for his message.
As a cohesive ensemble the four actors in the production engage in the performance with a rigorous vehemence that even during the calmer scenes creates a palpable presence in the space. Their emotions are most frequently expressed with the tonality and volume of their voices; a masterful quality to possess and in this case executed with a great deal of success. The tensions among the four characters are constantly reaching critical peaks and the high-end stakes that drives these intense moments make for quite the spectacle.
Trevor (Craig Dolezel) has a completely organic feel to his character, as if he constantly just exists in the moment without foresight or afterthought. Dolezel plays the calmest of the four characters, having his momentary outbursts stored up and sealed away until the very end of the production and even then he keeps a level head about him when doing so. Caught in the middle of his love interest and his two friends, Dolezel’s character is given the difficult task of picking sides, which he handles by making his character’s neutrality a central focus in his physicality as well as speech patterns.
Pete (Ari Butler) is a slightly more uptight character, the other half of the gay married couple in this production. Butler lends himself to the stereotypes that the play focuses around, crafting his character clearly and precisely with just a hint of attitude to carry him through the scenes. Butler’s big defining moment comes from his fully invested temper tantrum over ‘hating theatre.’ Anyone who has ever been involved with someone who does not fully understand theatre can relate to this moment with extreme hilarity as he engages his body in the spastic fit while shouting face down into the bed.
The major dramatic drive of the production comes from Emilie (Kellee Knighten Hough) and Danny’s (Frank De Julio) interactions. Each defined as their own unique character with attitudes and short tempers their scenes spent together create the racing pulse of this production, driving it to it’s rather sudden conclusion. Hough has a quick tongue when it comes to returning insults and trading injuries over social injustice, delivering these poignant lines with a fierce approach that really gives them a proper execution. The argument of double standards and the fine line of what’s acceptable and what isn’t in regards to prejudice really causes sparks to fly between Hough and De Julio’s characters, each instance of the recurring fight drawing them closer and closer to their climactic eruptions.
De Julio gives a stunning performance in the role of the playwright. His emotions are literally scattered to the four corners of the stage; a balled up knot of exploding anger and misunderstanding that reaches out to the audience on a deeply personal level. During his epic rant at Emilie toward the end of the production his words are so forceful and his body so engaged that you literally cannot take your eyes off of him as he spews forth a rather controversial viewpoint on the world. The pair goes postal in the penultimate scene; a thrilling verbal and near-physical battle that brings all of the mounting tension to a raging head in an extremely satisfying and cathartic moment to watch.
The Submission draws on some ugly truths and some seriously twisted viewpoints of the world; myopic racism believing that the street of prejudice only runs one way and the importance of ownership in a story; it is a fascinating production and will leave your mind running circles over everything it has to offer.
Running Time: Approximately two hours, with no intermission.
The Submission plays through June 9, 2013 in the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab at Olney Theatre Center — 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, in Olney, MD. For tickets, call (301) 924-3400, or purchase them online.
Joel Markowitz interviews Playwright Jeff Talbott.