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The Submission

Jonathan Groff and Rutina Wesley deliver exceptional performances in this riveting work about racial bigotry.

Jonathan Groff and Rutina Wesley in The Submission
(© Joan Marcus)
Racial stereotypes and bigotry are boldly addressed -- to both uncomfortable and comedic effect -- in Jeff Talbott's The Submission, being given its world premiere by MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. It's a daring piece of writing that doesn't always succeed, but the production, directed with hard-hitting flair by Walter Bobbie and featuring exceptional performances from Jonathan Groff and Rutina Wesley, nevertheless proves to be a riveting affair.

The show focuses on young Caucasian playwright Danny Larsen (Groff) , who has sent out his new work to regional theaters under the name Shaleeha G'ntamobi, feeling that literary managers and producers will only take the play -- which centers on an African-American woman and her son -- seriously if it sounds as if it has been written by a person of color. When his work is accepted for production by the Humana Festival in Louisville, Danny hires an actress, Emilie (Wesley), to play the playwright, figuring that he will be able to reveal himself as the true author after the work has received its premiere.

The show's odd, sitcom-like premise can come to the fore at some moments, such as when Danny attempts to control auditions for his play via text message. Thankfully, though, Talbott's more excoriating agenda is, more often than not, center stage.

At its heart, The Submission exposes the undercurrents of racism that have informed Danny's thought process and the subtle (a reference he uses to "cocoa puffs" early on with Emilie simply feels wrong) and not-so-concealed biases that course through his dealings with Emilie (and vice versa). Ultimately, the play reveals how words can be used as weapons, as Danny and Emilie's once-friendly relationship sharply deteriorates.

Had Talbott chosen to concentrate only on these two characters, the show might be a ripping exploration of this button-pushing subject. But there are two other characters, both of whom are underutilized and under-realized: Danny's boyfriend Pete (Eddie Kaye Thomas) and best pal Trevor (played with decided understatement by Will Rogers). Both characters distract from the central conflict, particularly when Trevor develops a romantic relationship with Emilie.

Fortunately, the production itself glides effortlessly between locations, thanks to David Zinn's clever unit scenic design that transforms one set from generic coffee shops to hotel rooms and apartments with ease.

Groff, whose cherubic smile and puppy dog-like eagerness instantly endears audiences, delves into his role to reveal Danny's arrogance, vulnerability and, ultimately his searing anger. What may impress most about the turn is that, while there are moments when audiences come to loathe the character, Groff's deft performance can soon make theatergoers rally to the character's side again.

While Emilie can also become overbearing and unpleasant, Wesley turns in a performance of decided grace and nuance that's filled with conflicted emotion, particularly as Emilie comes to resent the constraints that her role-playing for Danny place on her. It's an intriguing conundrum for the character, one -- much like the play -- that will most likely have audiences talking for weeks and months to come.