A few weeks ago, I ventured Off-Broadway to see The Submission at the Lucille Lortel Theater. Written by Jeff Talbot and directed by Walter Bobbie, The Submission is a smart, tight, and engrossing piece all about our prejudices and how we perpetuate, challenge, and exploit them. It had a wonderful cast, a clever set, and was generally pretty flawless for a writer’s debut. The only thing holding it back from having a second life at a larger venue may simply be whether or not there are enough people who want to sit through a one-act that can be as discomforting as this one.
The Submission focuses on Danny Larsen (played by Jonathan Groff), a young, white, and gay playwright who has struggled to get his work produced. When the next major theater festival rolls around, Danny submits an incendiary work under an assumed name. When the play is quickly snatched up by producers, Danny decides to continue the ruse, and hires an aspiring black actress named Emilie (played by Rutina Wesley) to pass herself off as the author of the piece. For the first half hour, I wasn’t sure which road author Jeff Talbot was taking us down. At this point, the show had the potential to be an outstanding, outlandish farce. But Talbot keeps things serious, as Emilie begins to take ownership of the story she feels she’s more qualified to tell, and Danny struggles to maintain control of something he admittedly did not always believe in. Caught up in this push-and-pull are Danny’s boyfriend, Pete (played by Eddie Kaye Thomas), and his best friend, Trevor, (played by the unironically named Will Rogers), who becomes smitten with Emilie.
I respect Talbot’s decision to maintain a serious tone. He wants this play to provoke, not to amuse. I’d argue that he could have made the same points with a satire that he does with his drama, but in the age of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, tackling these topics without a roll of the eyes is commendable. Danny and Emilie have some great and uncomfortable exchanges on the topics of reverse discrimination, stereotyping, and the ownership of language. Even their earlier, more innocent talks often come to abrupt, awkward halts (whereas the later climaxes sometimes stray too close to hysterics). I never felt that anything said in the play was gratuitous. Some things were repetitive, but I took that as the hallmark of a bad editor, not a shock artist. I know at least one person walked out of the show less than halfway through. I have to say, I really don’t understand why. For one thing, who doesn’t do a little research on what they’re going to the theater to see before they get there? I know plays don’t come with MPAA-certified ratings for content and subject matter, but honestly, make a little effort. For another, you go to the theater to have something to talk about. Sure, sometimes it’s more about who sucked and who didn’t, and which dance numbers were your favorite; but every once in a while, you leave the theater with an idea. And if you leave the theater early, you’re probably leaving with the wrong idea. And finally, it’s just a play! It’s fiction! It’s pretend! Jonathan Groff didn’t hop off the stage, come over to your seat, and call you a nigger. Rutina Wesley did not warm up the crowd by telling a string of jokes about two fags walking into a bar. They were actors interpreting the lines of a script written by a guy who said, “Let me see if I can get all these thoughts I have on this extremely delicate topic onto paper, and see if I can use them to tell a story that might get people thinking.” Like I said, that’s kind of what theater is.
The Submission really should get a second staging in the mainstream theater district, perhaps after another visit from the play doctor. (I still think the final scene, all of seven minutes long, could be completely scrapped). Keep your eyes open for this one, either on stage or in the bookstore. I think it’d be worth your time.