White Writer, Black Actress Clash; Wilson’s Wry ‘Lemon’: Review

Eddie Kaye Thomas, Jonathan Groff, Rutina Wesley and Will Rogers in "The Submission." Directed by Walter Bobbie, the drama is at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in Manhattan. Photographer: Joan Marcus/O&M Co. Via Bloomberg

Jonathan Groff and Rutina Wesley go at it hammer and tongs in Jeff Talbott’s high-volume race baiter “The Submission.”

Groff plays Danny, a marginal young playwright who scores a coveted production at a renowned resident theater.

The complication is that, under the pseudonym Shaleeha G’ntamobi the very Wonder Bread gay Danny has written a play about a single, booze-addled black mother and her hustler son trying to find their way out of “the projects.”

Enter Wesley’s Emilie, an underemployed black actress Danny hires to assume the “role” of G’ntamobi as the play is cast, rehearsals take place and the show opens to acclaim. (Never mind where he gets the money to underwrite such an assignment.)

Their relationship quickly grows contentious. Fans of these attractive stage actors cum TV stars (he on “Glee,” she on “True Blood”) may recoil at the sound of them shouting invective, including the “F” word and the “N” word, as the action winds up to its audience-hushing finale at Manhattan’s Lucille Lortel Theatre.

Nervously observing from the sidelines are Danny’s boyfriend Pete (Eddie Kaye Thomas) and straight best friend Trevor (Will Rogers).

Grand Ripostes

Much of the play, smoothly directed by Walter Bobbie, unfolds in coffee shops recognizable as stand-ins for Starbucks (cleverly designed by David Zinn and glintingly lit by David Weiner) in different locales. Clever but generic might be applied to Talbott’s play, which is smart and zingy but also contrived.

Staged clashes over the pain of discrimination experienced by minority A versus minority B are passe, no matter how polished the rhetoric.

More interesting is the play’s subtext of cultural imperialism. Through some mysterious process, Danny has written a very good play (even Emilie admits this) in the voice of a black woman. Is that thievery or precisely what artists do? (Gerard)

At 121 Christopher St. Information: +1-212-352-3101; http://www.mcctheater.org. Rating: **

‘Lemon Sky’

In the Keen Company’s fine revival of Lanford Wilson’s “Lemon Sky,” Keith Nobbs plays Alan, a sensitive 17-year-old child of divorced parents.

He moves west to a San Diego suburb to live with his father’s second family, which includes a warm but spineless step-mom (Kellie Overbey), two younger half-brothers and a foster child, a pill-popping, promiscuous blonde (Alyssa May Gold).

Wilson’s 1970 memory play is set mostly in 1959 and concerns Alan’s collision course with his unbending dad (Kevin Kilner), who works nights in an aircraft factory. Alan alternates between being part of the action and commenting on it, a hallmark of Wilson’s style (the playwright died in March).

Nobbs, quietly engaging, appeared in last season’s “Lombardi” and in profile resembles Tom Cruise. As the monstrous dad, Kilner is at once repellant and sympathetic.

The denouement was slightly lacking in necessary TNT. Directed by Jonathan Silverstein and costumed by Jennifer Paar, “Lemon Sky” nicely evokes late 1950s California and hemmed-in social norms -- without inspiring nostalgia for a lost time. (Boroff)

Through Oct. 22 at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://keencompany.org. Rating **

What the Stars Mean:
****        Do Not Miss
***         Excellent
**          Good
*           So-So
(No stars)  Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard and Philip Boroff are critics for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are their own.)

Philip Boroff in New York at pboroff@bloomberg.net.

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