Seminar: Theater Review
'Smash' creator Theresa Rebeck's searching Broadway play about an intense fiction writing workshop comes to L.A.
What a challenge to undertake, to write a play about young writers that actually examines the act and meaning of writing. It’s not an inherently dramatic subject and it’s prone to the sort of fuzzy generalities that can end up having little to do with the experience of creation. (It’s easier to show the impact on those around the artist.)
Theresa Rebeck, though most recognized as the creator of the series Smash, has been a prolific playwright for more than 20 years (Spike Heels, The Water’s Edge, Mauritius, Bad Dates), and her smart dialogue has sometimes obscured her penetrating observations about human failings, particularly our capacity for cruelty and selfish absorption heedless of consequence. As the title of her last show under the auspices of Center Theatre Group suggests, Rebeck can be a compassionate yet unflinching chronicler of Poor Behavior.
Four disparate New York City fiction writers pool their resources to hire a private tutor, esteemed burnt-out case Leonard (Jeff Goldblum), to coach them to improve their work and, more crucially, perhaps to mentor them to further their careers. Leonard is humiliatingly dismissive and disengaged, self-involved, and acerbic to the point of abuse. His prejudices, particularly regarding women, infuriate them. Yet each young person needs something from Leonard – which for most of the play he intuitively insists on withholding. Consistent with the uneasy mix of vanity and defensive isolation common to the aspiring, the students each in their own way also hold themselves back, from fear of criticism, of rejection, of failure, through insecurity and the humbling awe that any intelligent person must feel in the shadow of their own ambitions. Rebeck tellingly suggests that while connecting with oneself may be hard work, it pales beside the daunting task of connecting with others. These are difficult themes to put across, and Rebeck’s facility and craftsmanship go a long way to convey her perceptive and critical compassion for all of her characters. She makes her inside observations comprehensible and entertaining.
That said, the play has significant conceptual shortcomings. The opening stumbles, as the most successful – and, not coincidentally, best connected – student, Douglas (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe), establishes that he is fatuous and boring at sufficient length that he becomes palpably insufferable. (He thankfully exhibits more redeeming dimension over the course of the action.) For all of Rebeck’s savvy command of the writers’ psychologies, the characters never quite surmount their strategic status as types representative of variations on her theme. This drawback is greatly lightened by the sensitively polished direction of Sam Gold, who elicits nuanced and lively portrayals from all the students, as well as the richly suggestive sets and inventive color choices of the costumes, both by David Zinn.
Aya Cash as Kate – the privileged inheritor of a fabulous Upper West Side apartment rent-controlled for generations and an articulate advocate of orthodox second-wave feminism identifiably a product of her Bennington education – edges a quintessentially brittle Rebeck character into someone quite recognizably sympathetic despite the burden of her awareness of her own stereotypes. She displays a distinctive charm in integrity that augurs well for her casting in future desirable roles. As Izzy, the requisite sexpot, Jennifer Ikeda has the confidence and individuality to surmount the cliches in her less than inspired character, notwithstanding having to overcome gratuitous partial nudity before her other dimensions can be sufficiently established. And in the most challenging part, the wussy, introverted, passive-aggressive Martin, Greg Keller balances unattractive qualities with a convincing suggestion that he does indeed have the most substantial talent of them all. As the catalyst that propels the play, Goldblum masks his profound vulnerability with irascibility, and while at the start he is limited by a fairly single-note of drug-damaged egocentrism, when he unleashes his blistering monologues on the doleful fates awaiting each of his idealistic auditors, his projection of his own bitter disappointments and crippling vulnerabilities into his frighteningly credible scenarios palpably engenders empathy for all his eviscerating dissection of everyone else’s tragic flaws because he is so transparently unsparing of himself.
Still, many of the plot developments are not especially believable, mustered more for the convenience of serving the themes and taking the audience along to the place of understanding the fragile and deeply unnerving underlying emotions without undue discomfort. Seminar is a heavily carpentered construction, and the jousts and joints remain clearly visible. It does not shy from easy gags. The turnabouts and reversals can be willful. Its success as an evening of commercial theater actually does depend in some measure on its dramaturgial deficiencies.
Yet above all, Rebeck and her characters share the faith that to achieve truth is the purpose of art, and she accomplishes this to a remarkable degree. I must confess that every character in the play at many points says something vaguely appalling that I have heard said by other writers, or more distressingly, from my own mouth. Leonard’s tribute to Robert Penn Warren at Yale advising that in all writing, the sound should prevail over everything, including the idea and the story, confirms my own committed belief. Her ear, and her magnanimity, transforms a glib evening into a moving one. She even closes with an encomium to the priceless value of a ruthless line-by-line editor, an extraordinary concession by someone who has worked in television and not anything I’ve ever encountered on either page or stage (except in memoirs, a form for which her characters share a voluble contempt).
Venue: Ahmanson Theatre (through Nov. 18)
Cast: Jeff Goldblum, Aya Cash, Greg Keller, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, Jennifer Ikeda
Director: Sam Gold
Writer: Theresa Rebeck
Scenic & Costume Designer: David Zinn
Lighting Designer: Ben Stanton
Original Music & Sound Designer: John Gromada