In Jeff Talbott's The Submission, Meet Theatre People Behaving Badly
By Harry Haun
Who owns a story? It's one of the questions that playwright Jeff Talbott asks in Off-Broadway's The Submission, starring Jonathan Groff and Rutina Wesley.
The Submission kicks up a helluvah hullabaloo over ethnic authorship, arguably unequaled since Esteban Rio Nido claimed credit for the lyrics to "The Boy From," a song in composer Mary Rodgers' 1966 The Mad Show Off-Broadway. Nido, you might remember, later confessed he was really Stephen Sondheim.
Similarly, Jeff Talbott — in his playwriting debut, which world-premieres Sept. 27 (after previews from Sept. 8) in an MCC Theater production at the Lucille Lortel Theatre — creates a controversial comedy by telling a little black lie.
At the center of this particular crisis-of-credit is a stage play that has been accepted for a prestigious theatre festival — a gritty ghetto drama about an alcoholic African-American and her cardsharp son. The male author happens to be as Caucasian as they come — Danny Larsen (Jonathan Groff) — and a bit guilty about that, enough to use the name of Shaleeha G'ntamobi, a figment of his affirmative-action imagination.
What's the sin of a pseudonym? Talbott slips that seemingly innocent little question under a microscope and comes up with some darkly comic and dramatic findings.
"The idea itself came out of a conversation with a friend of mine," Talbott recalls. "In writing it, I remembered an argument I had in grad school, and that became one of the play's first moments of conflict. It was an argument about how we talk to each other, but it was also an argument about 'If I am able to empathize with your pain — things that happened in your life because of circumstances in mine — doesn't that give me a right to tell your story?' Danny Larsen makes an ethically wobbly decision to promote his play, and my play is about the consequences of that decision."
Issues are batted about the court by a cast of four, like mixed doubles. In addition to Danny, we have his boyfriend (Eddie Kaye Thomas), his best friend (Will Rogers) and a newcomer to the group who helps perpetuate Danny's lie (Rutina Wesley).
"I can't believe the cast I have," crows the contented director, Walter Bobbie. "Every one of them a powerful actor, and there are no small parts. It's really a four-hander.
"I just read the play and loved it immediately. I had no questions about its integrity or challenges. It's funny, yet it gingerly, effort-lessly, steps into thematic issues and political issues and identity issues that are perhaps toxic, perhaps dangerous and certainly creates some tensions. The result is a surprising comedy with real teeth."
A few seasons beyond his Tony-nominated Spring Awakening, Groff still retains an aura of idealism that puts up a good argument with Danny's actions.
"Flawed characters are the most fun to play — the most real and most true — so I was really pumped to come into this," he relays. "Danny is an imperfect person, and I was drawn to him because of that. This play pushes hot buttons about race and gender."
Wesley, who throws both of those monkey wrenches into this billowing bonfire, is staying mum about the mysteries of her role, but it's no secret how happy she is to be on stage again: "Theatre is where I get inspiration, and to be back with this play is great for me." Then it's back to making a dying for herself on TV's "True Blood."
Will Rogers is content with his actor/best-friend slot. "I'm the sounding board for these new plays Danny writes," he explains. "I'm kinda there as a support system, a voice of reason trying to bring him back down to earth at times."
Thomas, also on a TV break (from "How To Make It in America"), adds, "Theatre makes you cry and drives you crazy, but you're here because we want to be. My character's the guy who says, 'You guys don't have to do this.' I identified with his understanding of the passion and his distance from it.
"What I like is that Jeff wrote a very honest piece. You read it, and you kinda cringe. You're, like, 'Wow! You just gonna put all that personal stuff out there?' And I think if we're going to do this play, we might as well do that. Him writing a play that honestly inspires me as an actor to, hopefully, put something vulnerable out there as well."
Perhaps these are Talbott's acting roots showing. Prior to playwriting, the Yale School of Drama grad was seen on Broadway in the revival of Sly Fox and covering Fortune's Fool. Off-Broadway in 1999, he played a shrink in the first NYC revival of Arthur Laurents' first play, Home of the Brave. Ironically, Talbott's first play was the first recipient of the Laurents-Hatcher Award, a prize named for the playwright and his partner, Tom Hatcher. "Arthur made the connection because he was very involved in that revival," says Talbott, "but he didn't know that I was the one who wrote it, because the names of the contending playwrights were unknown to the judges." Laurents died May 5, just weeks after handing Talbott the prize money at an award reception, where the 93-year-old playwright called the script "fearless."
The Submission began with a conversation, and Talbott hopes it ends with one as well: "When people walk away from this play, I'd like it to start in their own lives a conversation about how they treat people and how we regard one another."
Check out Playbill.com's video feature with the cast.
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