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The Submission

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Eddie Kaye Thomas, Jonathan Groff, Rutina Wesley, and Will Rogers.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Truly daring plays about race in America are rare these days; the Civil Rights era and the election of Barack Obama have more or less seen to that. So it's startling that the first few scenes of The Submission, the new play by Jeff Talbott that just opened at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in an MCC Theater production, convey the unvarnished sense of obliterating the final taboo about the subject: the theatre's own treatment of it. Under the ministrations of director Walter Bobbie and an excellent four-person cast, the work looks as though it's going to be explosive, incendiary, and flat-out damning of an industry that has long considered itself beyond reproach. If only it took a bit longer for the play to move from being a solution to being just another part of the problem.

But how exciting and full of promise those opening salvos are. Danny Larson (Jonathan Groff) is a struggling playwright who makes a decision that's all too understandable in today's difficult production climate: After writing a harrowing drama about an on-the-precipice African-American family, complete with single mother and gambler-hustler son, he slaps on it the made-up name of a black female playwright, assuming that will compel producers to read it. His gambit works, and the play, titled Call a Spade, is selected for inclusion in the Humana Festival of New American Plays. But afraid that his being white, male, and gay will emerge in the rehearsal room, Danny seeks out an actress to pretend to be the author, Shaleeha G'ntamobi, just long enough to give the play—and thus Danny—legitimacy.

Once Danny finds her, in the whip-smart but justifiably skeptical Emilie (Rutina Wesley), the action is off like a shot. To say too much more about the specifics of what happens as a result of the deception would be to spoil a series of delightful almost-surprises that call into question the way everyone sees race as a component of art. Groff and Wesley are dynamic, forthright presences here who completely own and convince with their characters' points of view on the matter; never, in any of their discussions, do you ever side with just one for long. Eddie Kaye Thomas and Will Rogers round out the company as Danny's boyfriend Pete and best friend Trevor, who quickly falls for Emilie; though both are tangential to the main discussion, they effectively fill out the more personal details of a community at war with itself.

That's the meat of The Submission right there: the theatre faced with the idea that maybe it's not as accepting as it thinks it is. Targeting the play selection process at major theatre companies, and who they exclude in the process of being "inclusionary" and why they do so, isn't just a rare attack on theatre's entrenched importance of self: It's practically unheard of. Bruce Norris, with The Pain and the Itch and 2011 Pulitzer Prize winner Clybourne Park, also investigated the prejudices we're just too reluctant to acknowledge, though the theatre didn't directly factor in either; it did in Jonathan Reynolds's 1997 play Stonewall Jackson's House, though that focused more on lockstep political ideology. Talbott deserves to be commended for breaking the new ground he does here.

Unfortunately, he doesn't stop there. Rather than letting discussions of discrimination and reparations emerge through the story, the logical evolution as Emilie naturally begins feeling more and more responsible for the words she claims to have written, Talbott instead foists upon everyone a Hot-Button Issue to forcefully elicit the proper reactions. Not to put too fine a point on it (and, I suppose, this could be considered the border to spoiler territory): Danny is a racist and Emilie is a homophobe. Oh, not the cross-burning and back-alley-bashing kinds, mind you. But the varieties that let their distaste for the other seep into everything they do and say, giving each word more weight and more anger than is necessary for any well-rounded exploration of these competing perspectives.

As soon as Danny and Emilie's true selves are revealed, well before the halfway point of this intermissionless 100-minute evening, there's little to do with that side of the story but count the minutes until they finally give in and shout horrifically hateful epithets at each other. You can, and should, focus on the theatrical conundrums about the ownership of a work, and the extent to which anyone should write outside his or her experience. And you can admire David Zinn's periaktoi-inspired set, which shifts between a popular coffee chain and a series of hotel rooms and apartments with a pulsating urgency, or the music by Ryan Rumery and violist Christian Frederickson that attractively charts the surging and sagging arguments at the play's core. But once you know that Danny and Emilie are, in essence, cardboard, little else actually matters.

Rendering Danny and Emilie this way can only work if the playwright justifies it dramatically; because Talbott treats it as just another device, it never feels like anything more than a cheap way to be "edgy." But holding up a mirror to one of the theatre's longest-mooing sacred cows is more than adventurous enough, and Talbott's gifts for plotting and probing dialogue seem sufficient for accomplishing that by themselves. Not trusting that approach's substance sucks away all the subtlety and cleverness from the play's gorgeous setup, and prevents you from evaluating the underlying indictments of both the theatre's tolerance culture and the perpetual victim mentality of those who use past injustices to justify infinite demands today. It's too bad that a premise that's packed with shades of gray becomes in The Submission nothing more than wall-to-wall black and white.

The Submission
Through October 22
Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street between Bleecker and Bedford Streets
Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
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