NEW YORK – Actor-turned-playwright Jeff Talbott’s mischievous dance across the minefield of affirmative action in the arts, The Submission, has plenty of darkly comic bite, even if its central conceit doesn’t hold water. What the play really has going for it is a lip-smacking role for Rutina Wesley, making a welcome return to the New York stage for the first time since breaking through on HBO’s True Blood as Tara. Playing a woman drawn into an incendiary scam that desecrates the temple of non-profit theater, she’s the main reason to see a play that’s better at pushing buttons than resolving the explosive scenario it creates.
Directed by Broadway veteran Walter Bobbie at a desperately zippy pace, Talbott’s manicured dialogue is pruned and shaped down to every last staccato syllable. This is the kind of hyper-verbal theater that requires devilishly shrewd plotting, razor-sharp wit, or preferably, both. And when Wesley’s character is center-stage, it often comes close to meeting that standard.
Young, gay, white and ambitious, Danny (Jonathan Groff) is a child of privilege chafing at the world because in the seeming eternity of four years since he graduated from drama school, he’s still waiting for his break. His plays have landed a handful of readings but never a full production. That looks to change with his latest, a stirring drama about an alcoholic black mother and her card-sharp son trying to claw their way out of the projects.
Somewhat perplexed about where this raw new voice came from, Danny’s drama-school buddy Trevor (Will Rogers) calls the play taut and authentic. He also points out it has four characters and one set, in a winking acknowledgment that economy often trumps artistry in determining what gets produced.
A spat with Danny’s boyfriend Pete (Eddie Kaye Thomas) over not being first to read the play serves only as a sitcommy pit stop before the real conflict is revealed. Titled “Call a Spade,” the work has been accepted into the prestigious Humana Festival, one of the country’s top launching pads for emerging playwrights. But in order to have it considered, Danny submitted it under the pseudonym of Shaleeha G’ntamobi and now is scared to come clean.
Against the advice of Trevor and Pete, Danny enlists underemployed African American actress Emilie (Wesley) to play the playwright, standing in for him through the crucial process of casting, rehearsals, director’s notes and the inevitable triumph of the play’s first public presentation. It’s when Emilie becomes a co-conspirator that The Submisssion gets beyond its glibness and really takes off.
Much of the comic tension comes from Danny’s egomaniacal determination to retain absolute artistic control over his baby, even as opinionated Emilie reveals herself to be no meek employee, getting more and more caught up in the power of the play and her role in bringing it to an audience.
The problem with this is that Danny is so thoroughly unsympathetic – full of condescension, selfishness, latent (and not-so-latent) racism and bratty entitlement — it’s difficult to buy him as the author of this work of penetrating sensitivity and sociological insight. Groff is playing a variation of his recurring character on Glee, with his breezy, boy-next-door charm masking a self-serving agenda. But Danny is pretty much irredeemable, which throws the balance.
There’s a lot of clever, funny, enjoyably un-PC stuff packed into this intermissionless 100 minutes, which makes you keep rooting for the play to maintain its footing. The idea of pampered white Yale grads as the new artistic underclass has definite potential, and when Emilie challenges Danny about degrees of prejudice and his perception of their shared victimhood, their arguments have spark. But too many inconsistencies of character make the central dramatic construct ring false.
Rogers’ laconic manner and quiet suggestion of professional jealousy give Trevor an interesting edge, particularly when his blossoming relationship with Emilie shifts his loyalty. Thomas (American Pie) isn’t given much to play, beyond being unconscionably supportive for way longer than Danny deserves. But he does score laughs with an offstage meltdown about “theater people.”
A major weakness of Talbott’s play is that it prepares us for the disaster of exposure and then denies us the fun of the fallout, confining most of that information to indirect between-scenes references. And Danny’s final glimmer of self-reckoning is too soft to resonate, making for a weak ending. But in Wesley’s firecracker of a performance, it has a commanding trigger for conflict.
Venue: Lucille Lortel Theatre, New York (runs through Oct. 22)
Cast: Jonathan Groff, Will Rogers, Eddie Kaye Thomas, Rutina Wesley
Playwright: Jeff Talbott
Director: Walter Bobbie
Set designer: David Zinn
Costume designer: Anita Yavich
Lighting designer: David Weiner
Sound designer: Ryan Rumery
Music: Rumery, Christian Frederickson
Projection designer: Darrel Maloney
Presented by MCC Theater, by special arrangement with the Lucille Lortel Theatre Foundation