I attended a preview performance of The Submission by Jeff Talbott on Saturday, September 24. Produced by MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel, the production was directed by Walter Bobbie and starred Jonathan Groff, Will Rogers, Eddie Kaye Thomas, and Rutina Wesley.
Danny (Jonathan Groff), a young, Yale-trained playwright, has written a play and submitted it to the Humana Festival under a pseudonym. When Humana accepts the play for full production, we learn that Danny has created the name of a woman of color for the pseudonym. He recruits and hires an African American actress named Emilie (Rutina Wesley) to represent him at the festival, and the storyfollows the resulting challenges that emerge.
While I appreciated Talbott’s attempt at a dialogue on race, homosexuality, and oppression, I found that the play covered ground that’s been plowed under before. The charged nature of the “n-word” and the “f-word” could not sustain the central problem of the play very long, particularly for anyone who has thought about the benefits and deficits of social justice agendas and/or politically correct language. I could see the conflict between Danny and Emilie coming about ten minutes into the performance, and spent the remaining 80 minutes waiting for the unsurprising resolution. For me, the play became pedestrian and two-dimensional fairly quickly.
I did appreciate some of Talbott’s writing. He’s given Danny a very nice monologue about the writing process that Groff handles with great care. And there’s a strong piece for Emilie about why the “n-word” appearing 37 times in one scene of Danny’s play is not appropriate. Wesley delivers the monologue with a proper pitch and tone that allows the audience into the personal conflict at work within this individual, even if only for a moment. Wesley proves herself quite capable in this production, and I’d like to see her in a better play. In other places, Talbott underwrites the characters, essentially leaving them as two-dimensional stereotypes. This is most noticeable in the character of Pete, Danny’s boyfriend. Eddie Kaye Thomas tries to make something of this role, but between the dowdy personality and several misplaced jokes at crisis moments, he’s fighting an uphill battle. Will Rogers, who plays Danny’s best friend Pete and the eventual boyfriend of Emilie, develops a quirkiness in his portrayal that makes him the most watchable and the most curious of the four actors. I saw Rogers in this summer’s Unnatural Acts, and after seeing him here, I’m impressed by his versatility.
Overall, I left this production feeling angry. The content made me angry, mostly because it pressed my buttons. That’s probably a good thing, as here I am four days later still thinking about it. However, I also left wondering how a play in this condition could actually receive a full production. The major conflict scene, where things completely unravel, ran on and on and on. Whether or not this will tighten through the acting or through cuts and edits remains to be seen. The repetition of the argument between Danny and Emilie became tedious and boring. I’m surprised that Walter Bobbie, given his excellent directing record, had less control over this particular moment of the play.
The Submission explores some important territory, but not in a terribly innovative way. I’m grateful for the thoughts that have come up as a result of seeing the work, but I wish that it had pushed a little harder with more sophistication and complexity.