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Theatre in Review: Seminar (Golden Theatre)

Hamish Linklater. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

In Seminar, the literary life is seen as nature red in tooth and claw. Theresa Rebeck has always had a special knack for creating characters who are only too willing to let fly their scalding opinions, and this talent has never found a happier outlet than in her current offering. Delving into the world of a private writing seminar - revealed to be a fishbowl filled with piranhas - she allows the participants to make what politicians call a full and frank exchange of views, using language salty enough to keep this barbed comedy biliously amusing for its 100-minute running time. Seminar is also the rare play that seriously considers what it means to be a writer.

Rebeck assembles four aspiring fiction writers who pool their resources to hire Leonard, a famous novelist, for a ten-week writing seminar to be held at the Upper West Side apartment of Kate, the organizer of the enterprise. (One of the sharper images in Sam Gold's eminently light-fingered production features the other students surrounding Kate, shamelessly angling to find out how much she pays for this rent-controlled palace.) If the students are expecting anything but tough love from their instructor, they are sadly mistaken; Leonard dismisses one short story as unreadable after the first six words; he makes it all the way through another student's piece before announcing, "It's perfect - in a whorish way," advising the crushed author to move to Hollywood at the earliest possible moment. He does like one submission - it's content-free, but sexy, he notes - but only because he wants to sleep with the attractive young lady who penned it.

Under Rebeck's jaundiced eye, a putative discussion of the art of writing quickly turns into group therapy with the gloves off, as Leonard's appalling - but not necessarily inaccurate - opinions unleash all sorts of demons among his disciples. As the action descends into a festival of bad behavior, however, one nagging question remains: Is Leonard a sadist, consumed with self-hatred, or is he giving this highly naïve quartet an object lesson in the cost of the professional writer's life?

As Leonard, a dissipated, name-dropping, globe-trotting terror - just to make everyone else feel especially tiny, he always has a fresh account of horrors recently witnessed in, say, Somalia - Alan Rickman makes fine use of his trademarked curled lip, sullen stare, and disapproving growl. ("Well, you're a regular Emily Dickinson," he informs one reticent student, adding, "without the charm.") He never loses his self-possession, even when being accused of plagiarism and burnout. He also has an urgent message to impart to these intellectual babes, whether they want to hear it or not. In his most riveting speech, he details the thousand-and-one humiliations of the writer's life, ranging from obscurity and failure (for obvious reasons) to success (which brings little satisfaction, along with the hatred of one's friends and the world's anticipation of one's inevitable fall). He also lays bare, in hair-curling fashion, the terrible jobs one takes to buy time for the next book, which proceeds to consume one's attention and spend one's energy. An inspired bit of casting, Rickman makes Leonard into Mephistopheles on a sabbatical from hell, with a preternatural ability to keep his charges on the emotional hook, even when they'd rather not believe a word he says.

If Leonard doesn't totally dominate the proceedings, it's because everyone else is having such a fine time giving as good as they get. As Kate, whose Jane Austen-inspired story - which she has labored over for six years -- incurs Leonard's most savage scorn, Lily Rabe offers a seminar of her own in high comedy technique. She's especially delightful when, her ego ravaged, she exits wearing a chic Lily Pulitzer-style dress, returning seconds later in torn denim shorts and a T-shirt, toting pounds of junk food. ("Ohio is looking pretty fucking good right now," she adds, considering the bleak future.) She also gets a big laugh when, dismissing an amorous couple from their perch on an upstage credenza, she whips out a bottle of spray cleanser and paper towels to sterilize the spot. And later, after all sorts of damage has been done, there's real heartbreak in her voice as she tells a jealous, also-ran suitor that, on the whole, people are far more complicated than he suspects.

There's also sterling work from Hamish Linklater as the most self-defeating of the students -- the most seriously devoted to writing and the most terrified of failure - who is especially ripe for Leonard's scorched-earth commentary. Jerry O'Connell, new to the theatre after years in films and television, totally nails the role of the group's leading poseur. ("I hope what I'm trying to achieve is a little more intellectually rigorous than what Kerouac was going for," he says, with a carefully practiced shrug.) Hettienne Park is delightful as a fetching young thing who, when dropping names like Frank Conroy and Tobias Wolff doesn't earn her any respect, simply bares her breasts.

David Zinn's set design is unusual in that most of the action unfolds in an attractive, but not intensively detailed, living room setting - with high white walls offset by a pink-and-orange mural - which flies out for an enormously detailed set depicting Leonard's shabby, book-filled loft apartment, complete with skylight. (There's also a nifty show curtain, a field of blue with a single white band made of up collages of words.) The first set is given a hard, bright sheen by Ben Stanton, the lighting designer; the second is infiltrated by the dimmest, yellowest illumination, as if Leonard lives in a cave, as opposed to the top floor. Zinn's costumes are a study in how contemporary casual wear can be used to illuminate character. John Gromada's sound design provides amplification for electronica-inspired incidental music and a few scene-setting effects, including the sounds of traffic.

Some reviewers - even those who like Seminar - have dismissed it as a sitcom for the New York Review of Books set, but I think there's more to it than that. A playwright who has been especially vocal about the pain caused by bad reviews, Rebeck knows all too well the process of creating prose (or dialogue) that is personal, possibly even intimate, and releasing it to the world, where it is beat up, sneered at, or - worst of all - ignored. And yet, what choice does any writer have but to go on, hoping that things will turn out better next time. It's an existence that Darwin would recognize well, and, in Seminar, Rebeck brings it to nerve-shattering life. --- David Barbour.

(28 November 2011)

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