Actor-turned-playwright Jeff Talbott's first produced work begins like a screwball comedy. That mood doesn't last, though. It ends more like a horror movie — the evil inside.
MCC Theater's "The Submission" is a raw, unsentimental play about race and gender that exposes the quiet prejudice and intolerance among even our most progressive thinkers. It is both uncomfortable and impossible to not watch. Discussions are certain to be sparked after the curtain has fallen, on the way out of the theater.
The four-person play, which made its world premiere Tuesday night at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, starts with a variation on a somewhat tired, bait-and-switch premise: A well-off, Yale University-educated wannabe playwright named Danny writes a powerful play about an alcoholic black mother and her son trying to get out of the projects.
So authentic is this work that it's accepted at the Humana Festival of New American Plays, an annual event in Louisville, Ky., that attracts producers, critics and others. But not wanting to risk having it dismissed out of hand because he is white, Danny (a nicely layered Jonathan Groff) employs Emilie, a young black actress (a fantastic Rutina Wesley), to pretend to be the playwright, who is now given an impossible to pronounce faux African name.
It's all fun and games until Danny and Emilie have a few sharp exchanges that uncover a lot of troubling and offensive assumptions, illustrating that what we say and what we feel are often at odds.
Danny justifies his writing by arguing that he channeled his horror at homophobia to help him get in touch with the black American experience of racism. Not so fast, replies Emilie.
"A gay white guy telling a black woman he gets her pain is a little like Adolf Hitler eating a piece of kugel and saying he understands the plight of the Jews," she tells him in one of their exploitive-heavy shouting matches.
"The thing that freaks you out, the reason you're even here," he replies, "is that some guy might be able to sit in his middle-class apartment and imagine a life that isn't his, a life you think you have some ownership of."
As the ruse continues — Emilie, playing the public playwright, goes to meetings with the play's eventual director and actors, while Danny keeps a low profile — their clashes get more nasty and electric. Talbott's dialogue is grounded in how people actually talk, critical in a play that reveals how people actually think.
"You don't get the whole market on oppression forever," Danny tells Emilie. "Other people got the pain now. Wake up." She shoots back with a shot at his sexuality: "Take away what happened in your bedroom, and what are you Danny? Just another white guy walking around telling the world what to do."
As the fights escalate, Danny reveals a rich vein of racism, while Emilie's language becomes marred with gay slurs. The other two characters — Emilie's white boyfriend, played with sly humor by Will Rogers, and Danny's boyfriend, a nicely exasperated Eddie Kaye Thomas — try to be peacemakers but are horrified at the hate that's spewing out from their partners.
Eventually, of course, the n-word is used. It was just a matter of when, really. But it's used only once, and in a scene in which the sound of that word from Danny instantly freezes the four actors. "It is important to know what you're capable of," an ice-cold Emilie replies to Danny, citing a line in his play.
Director Walter Bobbie gets credit for deftly handling that pivotal scene, as well as some of most savage arguments seen on stage since "August: Osage County" and, certainly "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" He has also instilled in his cast a fearlessness, an ability to act without a net.
The action takes place in a soulless Starbucks-like coffee house chain, an apartment and a hotel room, all nicely realized by set designer David Zinn, who employs a moving back wall that makes transitions quick.
Groff ("Spring Awakening, "Glee"), does well in a complex role, one in which he is both likable and later despicable, a lefty who assumes he is politically evolved but still has a way to go. He plays Danny with an earnest guilelessness, unaware of the damage his words can make. Emilie is wonderfully realized by Wesley ("True Blood"); she veers from sex kitten in one scene to savagely screaming invectives a few moments later.
The 11 scenes fly by in about 90 minutes and then Talbott is on the hot seat for a way to end this brutal, nasty discussion stuffed with hurt feelings and historical grudges. Talbott comes up with an ending that won't satisfy everyone as it tries to inject a positive note. It comes too late, of course, to keep these four friends together.
As for Talbott, it's a pleasure to see what he's capable of.