White boys can’t jump — or can they? Scribe Jeff Talbott reframes that question in a provocative way in “The Submission,” when a white playwright uses the pseudonym of a black woman to submit his play (about “an alcoholic black mother and her card-sharp son trying to get out of the projects”) to a prestigious theater festival. This subterfuge leads to some inflammatory confrontations on race and gender between the scribe and his alter-ego. But the characters are caught between sitcom and emo-drama, lacking the brains — or, failing that, the basic vocabulary — to make these calculated smackdowns more credible.
What could be funnier? A white, middle-class playwright named Danny Larson (the professionally disarming Jonathan Groff) knows that no one’s going to read a play about the black experience written by “a white, white dude.” So he submits his play, “Call a Spade,” to the Humana Festival under the made-up name of “Shaleeha G’ntamobi.”
This feminine (and “kind of black”) name does the trick, and “Call a Spade” is accepted for production. Which puts Danny in the tricky position of finding someone to impersonate the bogus “Shaleeha” during the lengthy production process at the Festival’s theater in Louisville, Ky.
The job of “legitimizing the play” goes to Emilie Martin (in a bright and breezy perf from Rutina Wesley), a black actress who agrees to act as Danny’s mouthpiece during rehearsals and reveal the play’s true authorship on opening night. No surprise, Emilie falls in love with the play, gets caught up in the production, and loses herself in her role.
So far, the situation is both funny and poignant, which is the way that Walter Bobbie (“Chicago”) has directed the overall production. Like the understated humor of David Zinn’s set — a revolving series of self-consciously “original” Starbucks cafes that all look vaguely the same — the industry satire is clever without being cutting or cruel.
In the same vein, the supporting characters are played with more wit than bite by Will Rogers (effortlessly endearing as Danny’s best friend, Trevor) and Eddie Kaye Thomas (a certifiable saint as Danny’s loyal lover, Pete). If you met these people in a sitcom, you’d love them.
The thing is, the play isn’t really a comedy, and that poses problems when things get ugly between Danny and Emilie.
To put it bluntly, Danny’s a racist — a real one. His casual conversation is full of racist comments that go far beyond any white guy’s legitimate beef about reverse prejudice. Although Groff lays on the charm (and what a stroke of casting that was), Danny’s insensitivity raises serious questions about his character.
The main question, of course, is how such a narrow-minded and callous person could write an “authentic” play about black people. (Or even survive four years in New Haven while being schooled at Yale.) But you also have to wonder how a sweetie like Pete would put up with him, or how a nice guy like Trevor could stay friends with him.
The answers can’t be found in Danny’s background, because Danny has no personal history. But then, neither has Emilie or, for that matter, anyone else in the play. They all exist strictly in the moment, in one universal, perpetually revolving Starbucks. Even sitcom characters are given more backstory than that.