Monday, October 17, 2011

theatre review THE SUBMISSION, Off Broadway, October 16

The Submission is a fairly well written and exceedingly well acted and directed new play by Jeff Talbott.  Exploring the issues of race, racial stereotypes and bigotry, it tells the story of a white male playwright who has written a play about a black woman and her son under the pseudonym Shaleeha G'ntamob.  You see, after having several of his earlier plays go nowhere, he believes the only way his new play will be taken seriously and get produced is if it people believed it was written by a black woman.  He thinks a play dealing with racial issues in the African American world written by a white guy who's name is Danny won't even noticed.  So, once his play gets accepted to be produced by the Humanitarian Festival he decides to hire a black actress to pretend to be the author of the play.  He thinks that once the play opens he can reveal who the true author is and bask in the glory of his success.  Of course, pretty much nothing goes as planned.

Jonathan Groff and Rutina Wesley
Jonathan Groff and Rutina Wesley are the author and actress.  Groff is best known for his Tony nominated performance in Broadway's Spring Awakening and also guest starred on several episodes of Glee and Wesley has played Tara for four seasons on the hit HBO show True Blood.  They are both more than up to the tasks of this play and are completely riveting in the several confrontations the two of them have.

Eddie Kaye Thomas and Will Rogers play the boyfriend and best friend of Groff's character.  They are perfectly fine in what they are asked to do, which isn't much.  It is too bad as they provide a nice balance to the high energy of Groff and Wesley, so a little more of them might have better balanced out the play.

Jonathan Groff, Eddie Kay Thomas and Will Rogers
One of the on-going themes of the play is that since Groff's character Danny is gay that he can understand what black people have gone through since he has experienced the same feelings of prejudice and in being in the minority.  Of course, Wesley's character Emilie takes issue with this, since being gay and being black are two completely different things.  Danny does make many good points about the correlation between the two, but Emilie makes just as many against it.  That is the sign of a good playwright, someone who knows how to show both sides of a point of view.

However the fact that Danny is somewhat racist himself and uses some terms and phrases that aren't exactly politically correct adds a whole other element to the play about the genuineness of someone writing a play about a minority that he himself may have issues with.  Add in other comments he makes about actors and actresses of color being honored with Oscars or Tonys for small parts just because they are black and you can see some of the many topics this play attempts to deal with.  Some of these topics and issues are dealt with and handled better than others especially the main point the play makes, that a good play or other work of art about a minority doesn't necessarily have to be written by someone of that race, which is a valid one.  But the contra point that by being a part of that race it makes you better able to understand the issues that those individuals are faced with is also valid.

The play is well directed and staged by Walter Bobbie, best known for directing the Broadway revival of Chicago.  Bobbie does a very good job of staging the many confrontations in the play expertly choosing not to deliver them all as high pitched screaming  matches.  He effectively works with the one set by David Zinn, that more then expertly becomes a Starbucks, an apartment and hotel rooms.  I loved how the chalk boards at Starbucks kept changing throughout the play to show the passage of time.  Several scenes that are phone calls between two of the characters are nicely staged and effectively use the single set.

Thomas and Groff
While The Submission is a good play that attempts to deal with modern issues of race there were a few issues I had with it.   Wesley's character is pretty much never defined.  We know nothing about her but she seems to have to accept the part of speaking for her entire race several times, which would make more sense if we understood her history.  The supporting characters are given little to do and the ending seems to need more clarification as it doesn't pack the emotional wallop that a few scenes before it did.  There are also several phrases used throughout the play that seem more like a playwright trying to be hip and less like the way people actually speak.  With just a little more work and editing, and a better ending, I think this play could become one that really speaks to the modern issues of race and bigotry.

The MCC Theatre Company's production of The Submission at the Lucille Lortel Theatre runs through October 24th.

MCC Theatre Site

Interviews with the cast, writer and director -

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