As they sing in "Avenue Q," everyone's a little bit racist. Or at least racially fixated as depicted in Jeff Talbott's "The Submission," a play that doesn't lose our interest even as it progressively loses its balance. New Conservatory Theatre Center is presenting the West Coast premiere of Talbott's 2011 play that goes down a Mamet-like path, in themes and language, but doesn't leave an audience debating who the moral victor is. It isn't the playwright, and by that I don't mean Talbott, but rather the playwright he has created for this play about a play.
That play is titled "Call a Spade," the story of an African-American family finding a ray of hope despite dire circumstances. Its author is Shaleeha G'ntamobi, a black woman who turns out to be a persona concocted by a frustrated gay white playwright who thinks his play will have a better chance if theaters think it is an authentically black work. He turns out to be right, and enlists a dubious black actress to impersonate Shaleeha G'ntamobi, at least until opening night, when all will be revealed to a stunned audience.
The scenario provides obvious opportunities for social commentary, both comedic and dramatic, and The Submission delivers on both these fronts in director Ben Randle's well-paced production. The natty playwright and his best friend reveal themselves as wannabe urban hipsters as they debate the wisdom of sending off the play to theaters. "Should I submit this bitch?" playwright Danny asks of friend Trevor. "You should submit the fuck out of it," his buddy replies. And in his first meeting with black actress Emilie, the racial divide is comically approached. "I don't even know how to say it," declares Emilie after she first sees "by Shaleeha G'ntamobi" on the title page. "It's just a bunch of sounds put together."
As Danny, Eric Kerr offers an appealing combination of sensitivity and benign cluelessness in these early scenes, and Sam Jackson as Emilie has a friendly edginess as she tries to get her head around Danny's plan. But gradually, and then rapidly, the relationship goes south as Danny becomes an anxious outsider as Emilie gets to attend auditions and rehearsals. His benign cluelessness gives way to gross racial insults and resentments that, despite the conviction of Kerr's delivery, register as manufactured ways to heated arguments. There is more truth in Emilie's character, which Jackson continues to effectively connect with, as she increasingly lashes back as her buttons are pushed. "Your shit is not my shit," she exclaims as Danny plays the gay card to claim identification with the realities of being a black woman.
There are a couple of supporting characters whose purpose seems to be in providing peace-promoting observers to rationally react as the Danny-Emilie conflict moves into verbal nuclear weaponry. Chris Morrell plays Danny's straight friend Trevor, and Alex Kirschner is Danny's theatrically unaware boyfriend Pete, though both seem a notch or two away from fitting casting.
Director Randle effectively handles the rising heat between Danny and Emilie, and the objectives of the playwright, as out of balance as they can become, are well met. What is not necessarily an asset to this end is the minimalistic, angular blank set by Kuo-Hao Lo, occasionally used for blurry projections and silhouettes, and the techno-thwangs that ominously mark each change of scene. More suggestions of a real world might benefit a play that increasingly moves out of it.
The Submission will run through Dec. 16 at New Conservatory Theatre Center. Tickets are $25-$37. Call 861-8972 or go to www.nctcsf.org.