“The Submission” – A New Play by Jeff Talbott

On Saturday afternoon I attended a preview performance of "The Submission," a new play by Jeff Talbott that opened last night at the Lucille Lortel Theatre on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. 

 This is a very producible play, with four characters presented on a unit set.  (Anybody who sees it will identify that as a laugh-line early on….) 

The premise is that a gay white man who has been struggling to write a producible play finally finds the groove and writes a very producible play about a black family struggling with ghetto life.  He shows it first to a former classmate from the drama program at Yale, who praises it highly and says he should submit it for consideration.  His only hesitation is that he thinks a play on this subject matter by a gay white man may not be taken seriously, so he invents a stereotypical name of a black woman to list on the title page as the author, and submits it under that name.  When it is accepted for production at a prestigious theater festival, he faces the difficulty created by his little ruse, and "solves" it by hiring a black actress to "stand in" for him through the production process.  Complications ensue.  There's the plot, and I won't give away anything else here.

The cast is terrific.  Jonathan Groff, who I absolutely adored in "Spring Awakening" (and who I understand from friends who are fans of the show has made a big TV hit on "Glee") plays the young gay playwright.  Will Rogers plays his straight Yale classmate.  Eddie Kaye Thomas plays his boyfriend.  And Rutina Wesley plays the actress he hires.  Groff's presence in the cast is the main reason my theater-going companion and I went to see this, and we were well-rewarded, but actually I preferred the performances by Rogers, who strikes me as a superb comic actor, and Wesley, who projected exactly the right amount of fierceness.  I thought Groff was very fine, and I was glad to see him in a comedy-drama, but the playwright gave those two supporting roles more meat…

Walter Bobbie directs, and the scenic design by David Zinn makes the best possible use of the limited space available at the Lortel to convey effectively a variety of settings using a unit set with some props and revolving devices on the rear wall to change the "scene."  The entire technical production is smoothly handled in one fast-paced act, with striking original music by Ryan Rumery and Christian Frederickson.

As to the play itself, I found it constantly absorbing, albeit uncomfortable at times because it confronts the audience with difficult truths about racism – about the categorical assumptions that most of us unconsciously absorb as we grow up about members of various social and racial groups – and about the difficulties of even the most "well-intentioned" individuals to avoid getting trapped in those assumptions and then giving offense, often quite unconsciously, by allowing them to run our minds and our mouths.  In some ways, the characters are devices to project the various aspects of these problems, more than fully-formed individuals.  Perhaps the author could have spun this out into a two-acter and spent a little more time developing the characters as individuals.  (I thought the estimable Eddie Kaye Thomas, the boyfriend, was a bit slighted in having a less meaty role than the other three, so he could have been given a bit more to do.)  But ultimately I thought the piece took on a life of its own and played itself out interestingly.

In the end, I would recommend it as entertaining and thought-provoking, and it was really a pleasure to see all four fine actors working hard to bring it off on the stage.

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