Actions may speak louder than words in some scenarios, but the same could not be said for The Submission, Jeffrey Talbott’s timely, thought-provoking and deeply unsettling play currently in performances at the Lucille Lortel Theater. Talbott’s script, which was recently honored with the first Laurents/Hatcher Foundation Award for a new play, follows a Danny, a young, Caucasian, gay writer who has recently penned a play about an African-American family. After the script is accepted by Kentucky’s prestigious Humana Festival, Danny fears his work will not be taken seriously – or produced at all – when people recognize the disconnect between the author and the play. His solution is to submit it under a false name (Shaleeha G’ntamobi,) and hires an out-of-work actress, Emilie (Rutina Wesley), to play the author.
It is clear from the start this scenario is fraught with problems, both potential and realized. When Danny and Emilie first meet the awkwardness in the air is tangible. Initially reluctant to be a part of the scheme, Emilie then accepts the job and her conversations with Danny become increasingly filled with tension. While a supposedly liberal young man, Danny reveals some deep-seated racism that is truly surprising to hear. When the two begin comparing forms of prejudice they have experienced – racism vs. homophobia – the play takes a turn for the darker – and more rewarding – aspects of the show.
“I know what it’s like,” Danny says to Emilie of the ostracism she has experienced. She does not agree and informs him that comparing his experiences to hers is not only incorrect but insulting. The tension between the two continues to escalate, especially when Emilie represents Danny at the Humana Festival and they have to discuss edits to the script.
Played by Jonathan Groff, Danny is a complex, interesting, if somewhat off-putting character. Groff, known for his work in Spring Awakening and the television show Glee, delivers a first-rate performance as the narcissistic, ignorant but somehow still well-meaning Danny. Listening to his impassioned speeches, both about his work and his life, one cannot help but sympathize with him, even while not sharing his sentiments. Groff captures Danny’s boyish impatience and eagerness regarding his work, but he also depicts the rage that Danny feels as the lies progress and he realizes how much he has compromised himself.
Danny is not a flawless hero by any means; he utters some truly surprising and offensive statements. But neither is Emilee without fault. Unfortunately, Wesley’s Emilie is not nearly as well cast. Emilie is an interesting character and witnessing her development could be truly captivating to watch, but Wesley appears unsure of what to do with the character. She is sassy, funny, laid back, angry, sexual, frozen, confused and clear-headed – all within a few moments of each other. Wesley’s performance is so filled with scattered energy that Emilie never appears to be a person but instead a collection of stereotypes. And she is simply too loud; rather than speaking her lines, she shouts them – unnecessarily. Her energy does not blend with the other members of this fine ensemble; rather than appearing as an energetic, spirited woman she comes across as spastic, abrasive and off-putting.
Joining Groff and Wesley onstage are Eddie Kaye Thomas as Pete, Danny’s endlessly patient boyfriend, and Will Rogers as Trevor, his sarcastic best friend who begins a romance with Emilie. Cynical but still sensitive, Thomas gives a touching performance and he and Groff share a sweet chemistry. Rogers shines quietly as Trevor’s internal conflict escalate while the tension between Danny and Emilie continues to grow until the final argument between them. This scene, filled with profanity that quickly loses its power and homophobic and racial slurs that still possess theirs, is well-written and acted and extremely uncomfortable to watch.
Swiftly directed by Walter Bobbie on David Zinn’s impressively mobile, multifunctional set The Submission unashamedly acknowledges its inner theatricality with a touch of humor. (In one scene, Pete storms offstage, cursing “theater people,” and the audience burst into laughter and applause.) The script could have benefited from some trimming; some of the arguments between Emilie and Danny go on for too long and the final scene feels like a postscript to the show. But the play leaves an unsettled, disturbing feeling that lingers long after the lights turn back on.
“You got it so right, it pisses me off a little,” Emilie says to Danny of his script during one of their meetings. The same could be said to Talbott about this one.