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To be young, gifted and not black

In "The Submission," the sharp and enjoyable serious comedy at MCC Theatre, bright new playwright Jeff Talbott asks this provocative question: Can a gay white man get away with writing a black urban-family drama if he takes the pseudonym of a black woman?

At the end of 85 engaging minutes and five really bogus ones, audiences are also required to ask themselves another question. How much of a theater experience is ruined when the playwright asks a provocative question without knowing how to answer it?

And so it goes with this play, a savvy, but finally unsatisfying work that introduces a bright new voice with a first-rate acting quartet and smart production directed by Walter Bobbie ("Chicago" and Broadway's upcoming "Venus in Fur").

Jonathan Groff, the golden boy from "Spring Awakening" and "Glee," again shows his confident versatility -- this time as Danny, a struggling playwright who has had three readings in four years and never a production. But this new play -- which flowed so naturally it seemed to write itself -- has nothing to do with his own experience. So he makes up a black-sounding name, Shaleeha G'ntamobi, submits "her" script to a major festival and gets accepted.

Rutina Wesley, so dangerously honest as Tara on "True Blood," is delightfully multileveled as the actress Danny hires to play Shaleeha at rehearsals. Will Rogers is likably wry as the straight guy, while Eddie Kaye Thomas conquers shades of wariness as Danny's lover.

Talbott, an actor whose "Submission" is the first winner of the late Arthur Laurents' big-bucks Laurents-Hatcher prize, sprinkles inside-theater jokes without shutting anyone out. The dialogue, contained in short blackout scenes, snaps with a playfulness that suggests the dark underside of Neil LaBute. Superficially, the plot resembles David Mamet's "Race."

Before "The Submission" devolves into a cliched bigot-fest finale, complete with the requisite N-word and F-word mashup, the play promises to dig deeper into the nature of authenticity. Who is allowed to tell whose stories and where do they come from? More than once, his characters say, "It's important to know what you are capable of." After such a promising start, this play is surely capable of more.

WHAT "The Submission"

WHERE Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St.

INFO $65; 212-352-3101;

BOTTOM LINE Smart new play, cop-out conclusion

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