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NEW YORK – Anyone who has ever opened up his or her creative endeavors to unvarnished criticism will feel the sting – and maybe even relish the schadenfreude — of Theresa Rebeck’s tart comedy, Seminar. Four ambitious young writers test the treacherous waters of the professional world in a fiction workshop led by a jaded novelist and editor with little use for diplomacy, providing a lip-smacking role for the redoubtable Alan Rickman.
Comparisons will probably be made to Terrence McNally’s Master Class, in which Maria Callas unsparingly dissects the gifts of a series of aspiring singers while reflecting on her own career and on the challenges of pursuing a life in the arts. That play, however, is primarily a great diva platform. While Seminar touches lightly on similar themes, it’s a five-character ensemble piece with more developed relationships that yield as much stage time for the students as their uncompromising maestro.
Endowed with character-defining details by set and costume designer David Zinn, the production marks an assured Broadway debut for Sam Gold. One of the most in-demand young New York stage directors, his knack for finding laughs without pushing for them is on fine display here with an ideal cast.
Rebeck is a prolific playwright as well as a TV veteran (she has writer/producer stints on NYPD Blue and Law and Order: Criminal Intent under her belt, and is creator/executive producer on NBC’s upcoming Smash). That duel training ground has given her a keen ear for snappy dialogue, and a firm hand at shaping character conflicts. She’s also a novelist, which lends the ring of direct experience to this play’s observations of the foibles of writers and the publishing world in general.
The four students who have slapped down big bucks to sift for wisdom among the barbs of the fearsome Leonard (Rickman) are Kate (Lily Rabe), Martin (Hamish Linklater), Douglas (Jerry O’Connell) and Izzy (Hettienne Park). While Gold often groups them into safety-seeking us-versus-him formations, Rebeck and the terrific actors have etched them with four distinct personalities.
In Rabe’s flinty, funny performance, Kate is fragile but also abrasive and not uncalculating. She absorbs the humiliating evisceration of her overwritten story – and by extension, her coddled, wealthy white-girl self – and retreats into the comforts of junk food and self-pity before rallying in resourceful ways. That the ruse of her key strategy is semi-transparent makes it seem intended by Rebeck to be obvious, rather than a surprise twist.
Kate’s high-school pal Martin is dry and smart, ready to shoot down every inane comment, but timid about showing his own writing samples to the class. Stubbornly blind to the sexual tension between him and Kate, he gets distracted by Izzy, the wily pragmatist of the group. Unlike more prosaic female operators, she’s also bluntly candid, perceptive and unapologetic about using sex to accelerate her forward trajectory.
Presented at first as a blowhard, pretentiously waffling on about “interiority,” Douglas is talented, well-connected and already on the path to modest success, but perhaps not talented enough to crack the top tier. Leonard’s blisteringly honest assessment of his prospects — complete with a hilarious primer on “the perfect rendition of a New Yorker story” – is one of several juicy verbal showstoppers.
The play is more driven by character than narrative. It doesn’t go deep on the armor required for artistic self-exposure or in subverting the mentor-acolyte dynamic. There are also drawbacks in the stage shorthand required to believe that fully formed opinions can be based on cursory glances at anything as complex as fiction writing. But Seminar is tight, witty and consistently entertaining, acquiring more muscle as the layers are peeled back to reveal both the scarred humanity and the numbness beneath Leonard’s soured exterior.
This happens incrementally, via nuggets dropped throughout the play – a few words here, a re-evaluating gaze there – but most dynamically, a fuller picture of the man and his methods emerges in two robust speeches. In one, Rickman masterfully builds steam in Leonard’s disparagement of Martin while gradually conveying that the soul-crushing path he’s mapping is actually his own. In another, he shows uncharacteristic vulnerability, confessing to the flaying effects on an artist of the whole process of being marketed and scrutinized.
This is a virtuoso role for Rickman; it’s to his credit and Gold’s that he makes it an integral part of the ensemble, not a star turn.
Venue: Golden Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)
Cast: Alan Rickman, Lily Rabe, Hamish Linklater, Jerry O’Connell, Hettienne Park
Director: Sam Gold
Playwright: Theresa Rebeck
Set/costume designer: David Zinn
Lighting designer: Ben Stanton
Music/Sound designer: John Gromada
Presented by Jeffrey Finn, Jill Furman, John N. Hart Jr. & Patrick Milling Smith, Roy Furman, David Ian, David Mirvish, Amy Nauiokas, James Spry
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