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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
As indicated in the above quoted exchange between Emilie and Danny, the two pivotal characters of Jeff Talbott's The Submission, the same is obviously not true for the "N" word. Their discussion is prompted by the director's request to tone down the heavy use of that discomfort causing word in Danny's play about an alcoholic black mother and her card sharp son trying to get out of the Projects
So why is the concern about the over-used "N" word addressed to Emilie instead of Danny, the author? It's not that Danny's shy about being in the limelight but because he realized that a white guy writing about a black woman might be a stumbling block for its acceptance. He therefore opted to give his play an extra push up the ladder of success. That push translated into an obviously African-American name, Shaleeha G'ntamobi, to by-line the script and provide it with the stamp of authenticity. If luck were to be with him and his submission accepted, he would reclaim ownership of the play — but not until after it's actually gone into production and been performed.
When Danny's pseudonymously by-lined submission does indeed grab the interest of the prestigious Humana Festival (an annual event at the Actors Theater in Louisville, Kentucky) the plot immediately thickens. This is after all the age of marketing when a play's creator is expected to be available to personally promote the work from acceptance through and after production. And so, the invented author now requires a second and more involved deception: a living and breathing Shaleeha G'ntamobi. Enter Emilie, the black actress Danny hires as his stand-in, whose gig will end when she reveals the play's real author to the opening night audience.
Mr. Talbott is a working actor and unproduced playwright. He was almost 20 years older than the anti-hero of The Submission, the play which finally changed his luck by making him the inaugural recipient of the Laurents-Hatcher Award, which comes with a $50,000 prize for an emerging writer of a full-length play with social significance and $100,000 for a producing organization. It's easy to see why he would understand and write about a younger man who is impatience to see his work fully produced instead of remaining stuck in the limbo of go-nowhere readings. In The Submission Talbott has used his knowledge of the passions and frustrations experiences that might cause an ambitious young writer to grab hold of and manipulate opportunity instead of waiting for it to come knocking at the door.
The dialogue has enough snap, crackle and pop to support the decision to make Talbott's play a worthy recipient of that very generous Laurents-Hatcher Award. What's more, the issues kicked up as Danny's hoax turns into a case of "oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive" certainly fit the grant's requirement that the play have social relevancy. Besides being an entertaining backstage story and full of witty interchanges, The Submission doesn't shy away from racial issues that are not easy or comfortable to think or talk about. Thus the word the Humana Festival director who assumes Emilie is the author wants toned down to avoid taking the audience out of its comfort zone is a linguistic trigger to tap into all manner of politically incorrect resentments and prejudices.
Danny who tries to keep control of his play even though his scheme to authenticate it with a black author has forced him to remain invisible, insists that "it's only a bullet if you load the gun with it." However, as he tries to manipulate Emilie through his constant text messages, Danny is in turn a puppet on playwright Talbott's string. And Talbott does load the gun to bring the hoax and and its perpetrator's relationship with Emilie, his boyfriend Pete and drama school chum Trevor to an explosive and inevitable melt-down — a confrontation that will indeed take New York theater goers out of the comfort zone in which they can see themselves as open-minded citizens who supported school integration, an end to " don't ask, don't tell" and the election of a black President.
MCC Theater has put its share of the Laurents-Hatcher prize money to good use, providing the world premiere of The Submission with a top of the line production. Walter Bobbie, who most recently distinguished himself as the director of a period piece, School For Lies, is an apt choice to helm this contemporary take on how lies have a way of spinning out of control. All four of the actors prove themselves to be well chosen to make Talbott's characters into believable people.
Unlike the desperate Danny he plays here, Jonathan Groff's acting career been full of triumphs (notably in the musical Spring Awakening and as regular guest on Glee). This is again true, with Groff's boyish good looks making the signals of his simmering hostility throughout the play's 90 minutes that much more shocking during Danny's final big scene with Emilie.
While Groff is probably the cast's star attraction, the play really lifts off in a big way with the arrival of Rutina Wesley (an experienced stage actor probably best known for HBO's True Blood) as the fierce and sizzling Emilie. Though Emilie is drawn (somewhat inexplicably) to Danny's play and wants it to succeed, she shoots down his claim that being gay makes him an equal opportunity victim of prejudice with "a gay white guy telling a black woman is a little like Adolf Hitler eating a piece of fuckin' kugel and saying he understands the plight of the Jews."
Will Rogers and Eddie Kaye Thomas lend strong support and add to the ripple effect of the pretend-author scheme. Rogers, as Danny's Yale Drama School classmate Trevor is not gay but their friendship is cemented by shared theatrical ambitions. Thomas's Pete, white and 27 like the other men, is Danny's lover. He's a straight arrow, orderly sort of guy who nevertheless fell in love with Danny's slapdash charm.
Though more on Danny's wavelength than Pete, Trevor is as leery about his friend's hoax as his lover. Still he goes into hiding with Danny as things get underway at the Festival because he feels compelled to be there when his friend's house of cards collapses. As he puts it "I feel all this, you know, all this pity for you and I just think somebody should keep an eye on you. It's kinda like having a mentally challenged little brother." The fact that Trevor is straight also affords an opportunity to lighten and brighten, as well as complicate, matters by having him and Emilie fall in love. Unfortunately, a phone sex scene seems out of character for Trevor and a gratuitous bit of titillation.
David Zinn's clever shifting back panels allow the story to play out in various locations and move from scene to scene without lengthy and distracting blackouts. David Weiners lighting and Ryan Rumery and Christian Frederickson's background music add atmosphere. Costume designer Anita Yavich's makes the already stunning Rutina Wesley look even better.
The Submission is not without flaws. The dialogue, for all its cleverness is at times less than organic and the final scene is somewhat anti-climactic. Still, the writing is real and flavorful and the plot, for all its contrivances, keeps you engaged throughout. And yes the penultimate scene is more than likely to shake you up a bit-- but isn't that what theater is supposed to do?
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