Sharp-edged, fast, frequently funny, and extremely well-realized in Walter Bobbie’s taut, speedy production, Jeff Talbott’s The Submission (Lortel Theatre) has one little problem: It wants to be two different plays, a desire that puts a lot of bumps into what was clearly meant to be its smooth, nonstop trajectory. Despite the driving skills of Bobbie’s uniformly admirable high-power cast, the script’s divided intentions cause constant, annoying turbulence.
Danny (Jonathan Groff), Talbott’s hero, is a young gay playwright, white and male, who has just written a highly producible four-character work. There’s only one catch: All four characters are black. When he submits the play under an African-sounding pseudonym, and it’s accepted for production by the Humana Festival, issues of authenticity and cultural appropriation loom ominously ahead.
To dodge them, Danny, urged on by the enthusiasm of his lover, Pete (Eddie Kaye Thomas), and his best straight friend, Trevor (Will Rogers), recruits a young African American actress, Emilie (Rutina Wesley), as his authorial stand-in. She’ll explain away the pseudonym as a matter of actor shyness about playwriting instead of an ethnic bait and switch. Predictably, comic tensions follow, with Danny text-messaging casting instructions, e-mailing rewrites, and tying himself in knots of envious frustration while, from a distance, he watches Emilie bond with the theater staff, her cast, her celebrated black director, and finally with a cheering opening-night audience.
At this point, the work shifts gears, grindingly—a shift Talbott has prefigured in small, clumsily inserted, earlier jolts. Where you might have suspected him of satirically updating Martin Ritt’s 1976 film comedy of blacklisting, The Front, with Wesley and Groff standing in for the film’s Woody Allen and Zero Mostel, Talbott’s actual artistic inspiration seems to be the generalized snideness of Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park. The pseudonymous script’s opening-night success abruptly turns everybody onstage into a hung-up abstraction: Emilie and her unseen black colleagues generically proprietary about “their” culture, Danny’s wounded ego garnering a typically white-guy fixation on his property rights. Rival culturally conditioned senses of superiority start blazing away: By the time the shouting’s over, everybody is revealed as just a little bit racist, sexist, classist, and homophobic.
Talbott cunningly makes Emilie the person who, in this fraught situation, does the right thing, although we only hear about it after her stormy exit. But that just underscores the climactic confrontation’s arbitrariness, which burns away the play we thought we were watching to reveal layer after layer of questionable thinking. If Danny’s the kind of stereotyping nitwit the last 20 minutes show him to be, how could he get away with the whole escapade? And why would he want to?
In this context, we start to wonder about the unanimous acclaim we hear of Danny’s play getting. From the tidbits of it that Talbott supplies, it actually sounds like a fairly trite recycling of old-hat black-theater motifs—another copy of what George C. Wolfe once defined as the “momma-on-the-couch play,” only with alcoholism added. Is Talbott’s idea that anything submitted by an African American writer automatically gains increased respect (African American playwrights would have plenty to tell him on that topic), so that Danny has merely recycled an old tune? Or has he actually achieved, as he’s repeatedly told, something exceptional? If the latter, and if he’s so hungry for the success of the work, why can’t he make his ego shut up half an hour longer and enjoy his triumph by proxy?
To judge by the sourly sad epilogue, Talbott perceives Danny as a self-destructive schmuck who can’t enjoy anything, destroying love, friendship, and career all in one bratty sulk: the playwright as stinker. But this calls into question the tender consideration everyone else has shown for him throughout. Despite Groff’s good looks and appealing energy, it’s hard to see what Danny has that wins others’ affection. Pete, about whom we learn only that he’s devoted to Danny, seems a particularly vague figure, notwithstanding Thomas’s strong, sympathetic presence. Rogers, a smart, subtle actor, makes Trevor’s equivocations viable; Wesley, new to me, gives a powerhouse, nuanced performance as Emilie. But their efforts can’t save The Submission from its own divided soul, half cultural tragedy and half smarmy neocon stunt.