Chicago Theatre Review
The Play is the Thing
The Submission – Pride Film and Plays
Growing up in the projects becomes the subject of a hot, new play written by a lower middle-class, young black writer who has experienced all the trauma first-hand…except that it really isn’t. The play is actually a complete fabrication by a young, middle-class, gay white man who believes that the theatre world would never accept his fictional story if his real name was on the title page. Supported by Trevor, his best friend and a fellow writer, and by his boyfriend Pete, Danny decides to place an ad, interview applicants and ultimately hire an actress to portray the playwright.
The idea soon blossoms into reality. Danny, while anonymously representing his bogus African-American playwright, receives word from the prestigious Humana Festival that they’ve selected his play, “Call a Spade,” to be presented in a fully staged production at this renowned theatrical event. He soon meets, connects with and hires an actress named Emilie to be the face of his phony playwright. The ball gets rolling and, after several meetings likened to Henry Higgins coaching Eliza Doolittle before the ball, Danny feels confident that Emilie will be able to represent him as his play’s author.
Following her to Louisville, Danny stays in hiding while Emilie meets with the much-celebrated director interested in staging the play, attends a casting call for the drama and sits in on subsequent production meetings and rehearsals. Emilie’s accounts of this process only makes Danny more and more jealous of her enviable position. Tempers flare and words are exchanged that can never be retracted but, as Hamlet said, “The play is the thing.” The production comes off successfully, but Danny has provided Emilie a script to memorize and deliver to the audience following the play. In it she’ll confess that she’s not the actual writer, but that Danny, the real playwright is and waiting in the wings to accept his fame.
Right from the beginning of Jeff Talbott’s provocative play the audience, and even his own characters, can see that this scheme is a colossal mistake. Lying is never a good idea and, in what is essentially a business deal, is an appalling way to success. Part of this play’s difficulty is convincing a savvy audience that a notable national organization like the Humana Festival wouldn’t thoroughly investigate a new playwright before selecting his work for their gala. Another questionable point is whether an actress as smart as Emilie would go along with this kind of scam, especially once she’s caught wind of Danny’s innocent bigotry. Then there’s the implausible surprise information thrown in near the end of the play, in which we learn that Emilie actually did reveal to the Festival that Danny was the real playwright. Too many incongruities, too much redundancy, a too convenient romantic relationship between Emilie and Trevor and a blatant overuse of the f-word make Talbott’s script a little too shaky.
Jude Hansen, whose stellar work as an area actor has been enjoyed and critically lauded, makes his successful Chicago debut here as a director with Pride Films & Plays. With an eye and ear for realism, Mr. Hansen keeps his actors clipping along at almost breakneck speed. Jokes and cultural references fly and dialogue overlaps with the fury found these days in most television talk shows. The early scenes speed through the necessary exposition, with audiences finding themselves thankfully plunged into the meat of Talbott’s play before they know what hit them. In fact, much to Mr. Hansen’s credit, the play’s illogical circumstances don’t really register until well after the final curtain. Near the end there’s one last, gut-wrenching scene offering dialogue that’s practically unbearable to witness; but Mr. Hansen nicely builds his production to that climactic point, almost making the final denouement unnecessary.
Hansen’s cast handles this often difficult play with authority and tough love. As Emilie, Ginneh Thomas offers the most humanity and empathy in this production. Ms. Thomas‘ indignation takes a while to reach its boiling point and she paces her character’s journey as well as the script allows. Dialing back the anger, in Ms. Thomas’ hands Emilie becomes both the victim and the heroine of this production. Danny is played with alternate spurts of raw energy, humor and indignation by Nicholas Bailey. Whether its entirely the script or Mr. Bailey’s character choices, Danny begins the play as an eager, affable young fella the audience wants to root for, but the character ultimately ends up looking and sounding like a repulsive, spoiled brat. Adam Pasen and Edward Fraim are a bit less convincing in their roles as Trevor and Pete but, in fairness, they aren’t given the same amount of stage time. Both actors do what they can to give these secondary characters some dimension but the playwright just hasn’t given them much with which to work.
Jeff Talbott’s play is a controversial story that’ll undoubtedly spark many vigorous post-curtain discussions, which is great. His script could easily become more effective if some of the dead wood was eliminated. Without an intermission the Apollo Studio bar might not make as much off drink sales, but the power of the play would definitely increase. And, after all, it’s true that the play is the thing.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented October 14-November 25 by Pride Films & Plays at the Apollo Studio Theatre, 2540 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.