MCC Theater’s ‘The Submission’ dares to provoke

Jonathan Groff and Rutina Wesley in 'The Submission' at MCC Theater - Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus

MCC Theater’s production of Jeff Talbott’s The Submission is incendiary, offensive, controversial and wonderfully inviting of debate. The playwright’s dialogue sings on the lips of the four skilled actors who populate the 100-minute piece.

What holds the play back from attaining that rare level of excellence is its self-indulgence. Affirmative action, race relations, political correctness, homophobia and a host of other issues all come up in conversation, but they almost always feel like plot devices. The Submission, unfortunately, is both fiercely passionate and annoyingly self-conscious of its own provocations.

Jonathan Groff, of Broadway’s Spring Awakening and TV’s Glee, plays Danny Larsen, a young playwright struggling to work his way into the professional writers’ club. He’s got ideas and clever characters, but almost all of his creations end up in regional readings and failed attempts.

But then he has a light-bulb moment. Perhaps, as the self-avowed “whitest guy” he knows, writing a play about a struggling black family could gain some attention. Better yet, why not create a fictitous name for the playwright of the piece (Shaleeha G’ntamobi, because Danny thinks it sounds “black”) and cast an actress (Emilie, played by Rutina Wesley of HBO’s True Blood) to fill in for him when developing the play.

The premise is absurd for a variety of reasons. But Talbott and director Walter Bobbie are able to keep the energy level going at a fast clip, so any thoughts of whether the plot would actually happen are largely forgotten. The single greatest fault of the storyline is that white playwrights have written plays featuring black families. The characters in The Submission are smart enough to realize that lying about the identity of the creator is probably worse than owning up to the authorship.

Eddie Kaye Thomas plays Danny’s boyfriend, Pete, while the skilled Will Rogers portrays Trevor, Danny’s best friend and old college roommate. The three guys at first get a kick out of fooling a prestigious theater festival that Danny’s creation was, in fact, written by Emilie’s Shaleeha.

Emilie is just happy to be a part of the entire production, especially since Danny’s play “speaks to her” on an intimate level. Further details on these feelings and how Danny created such vivid characters are fairly scarce. There’s one description of how he attained the idea for the play, but the particulars are kept hidden.

Soon enough, the plan begins to unravel and all of the characters realize they are in over their head. Interestingly, what heightens the tension is not the pressures from the outside world and whether or not their scheme will be discovered. The tension comes from these four characters. After agreeing to the acting job, Emilie begins to realize that maybe Danny’s intentions aren’t as genuine as she first thought.

The intermissionless piece turns into a high-octane verbal feast of words that is frank, freeing and eventually redundant. What needs to be said about the complicated issue of race relations and affirmative action in the arts is accomplished rather quickly. Not much is learned after the veins start throbbing and the lingual darts start flying. It doesn’t take Nostradamus to realize how this evening ends.

Words are said that can never be taken back; souls are laid bare; comparisons are made between the discriminated black people of yesteryear and today’s gay community. It’s all topical and written with a fine hand.

Talbott needs to be applauded for his courage at attacking several touchy issues head on. Using the admittedly biased voices of his characters, he is able to carry on a full debate in front of the captive audience at the tiny Lucille Lortel Theatre in the West Village, where The Submission runs to Oct. 22.

The problem is that the dialogue is extremely self-aware and the characters talk more than they act. Most of the scenes, which take place in hotel rooms, coffee shops and Danny and Pete’s apartment, are framed around discussions about other discussions. You never hear too many lines of dialogue from Danny’s play within the play. You don’t witness Emilie becoming Shaleeha, except for one scene. There is too much talk about talk, and not much propelling the play organically forward.

These characters know they are characters.

That said, the acting is top-notch. Groff is able to slyly come across simultaneously likable and despicable. Kaye Thomas probably has the most underwritten of the roles, but he finds a nice balance. Rogers is perfect as the loyal friend who begins to question the insanity of their collective predicament.

Wesley, however, is the best. She has the truest arc and finds a real backbone to the Emilie character. Her ferocity in the final minutes is perfectly rendered, and proves to be the highlight of the show.

The Submission grabs the audience and doesn’t let go for 100 minutes. But the hand that grabs you understands that it’s coming from a playwright, and not a real person.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
  • The Submission

  • MCC Theater production

  • Written by Jeff Talbott

  • Directed by Walter Bobbie

  • Starring Jonathan Groff, Rutina Wesley, Eddie Kaye Thomas and Will Rogers

  • Playing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre at 121 Christopher St. in New York City

  • Click here for more information. Tickets start at $65.

  • Running time: 100 minutes

  • Rating: ★★½☆

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications.

E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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