Seminar has the write stuff
Anyone who has ever attended a writers' workshop (guilty!) will recognize the characters in Theresa Rebeck's Seminar, and also the dynamics among them. There's Douglas, the apparently confident son of a somewhat well-known writer, who's a few steps ahead of the other students in terms of his literary career: He has an agent and a story under consideration at The New Yorker and, in typically pretentious style, he describes Yaddo — that hard-to-access mecca for upcoming writers to which he managed to gain admission — as a place where "interiority and exteriority meet" and "the trees are so present." The others are Kate, a poor little rich girl struggling to find her way and her voice as a writer who's been working on a single story for six years; Izzy, the exotic beauty — there's one in every workshop — whose work will be praised by the teacher and whose career will advance no matter what her level of talent; and the driven, neurotic and over-emotional Martin.
Like most students in real workshops, these young writers will be careful in rendering judgment on each other, both wince and rejoice when another student is criticized, and writhe with envy when someone else is praised. As for the teacher, Leonard, he's a nightmare: a bitter old coot whose own writing career came to a halt for reasons we'll eventually learn, and who now works as an editor and leads expensive seminars (this one cost each participant $5,000) for the apparent sole purpose of tormenting students. His criticisms are lazy, since he barely bothers to read what's in front of him, and viciously ego-destroying — and he's also one of those swaggering journo-novelists who claims to have been in many dangerous hot spots worldwide. "I ate cabbage with a Chechnyan psychopath," he says, in an implied reproach to his students' insularity. "It was fucked up, all of it. But it was relevant." Kate will eventually have fun with this, offering him part of a memoir — a form he's mercilessly mocked — by a "Cubano transvestite gang member" she knows.
This play isn't deep. None of these characters is fully fleshed out, and Rebeck doesn't have any particularly penetrating things to say about writing. Leonard's pronouncements are cruel and funny but only rarely incisive — as when he says that Douglas's story exhibits "a level of competence that's almost chilling in its thoroughness" and adds that its "perplexed tone of detached intelligence" makes it perfect for The New Yorker. Kate's depression feels like aimless ennui rather than serious questioning, and she assuages her demons with Chinese food, chips and raw cookie dough like dozens of sitcom heroines before her. We don't know how Izzy feels about the effect of her own sexual allure on the others — or, in fact, about writing — though she does make it clear that she knows how to use her attractiveness for professional gain. And Martin remains an inarticulate jangle of nerves from beginning to end.
But there's also a lot of smart, caustic humor here, and at a lively ninety minutes, Seminar makes for a fast and very entertaining evening. The production is well directed by Stephen Weitz, Ron Mueller has contributed an exceptionally functional and well-detailed set, and the acting is solid. John Ashton (a Westword staff writer decades ago) is a suitably foul-mouthed and morally ambiguous Leonard, and Matthew Blood-Smyth is a comically arrogant Douglas. Devon James makes Kate pleasantly disheveled, accomplishing an interesting transformation toward the end, and as Izzie, Mary Kay Riley deploys her poised beauty and long, graceful legs to full effect. Martin is supposed to be neurotic, but there are moments when, as played by Sean Scrutchins, he becomes almost incoherently so.
The blacker the humor, the more interesting the action, so it's a shame things get serious and a touch sentimental toward the end, with Leonard and Martin alone together, admiring each others' work and expressing their mutual love for language and literature. There is a saving grace, though, an implied sting in the tail: just the hint of a suggestion that if Martin chooses to walk through the door to a writer's life Leonard is holding invitingly open for him, he'll find he has struck a Faustian bargain.
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