Theresa Rebeck is on a roll. The Brooklyn-based writer has had more than a dozen plays produced in New York to ample acclaim, including “The Understudy” and her 2007 Broadway debut, “Mauritius.” Equally at home working in television, she’s written and produced episodes of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” and is the creator and head writer of “Smash,” the wildly anticipated NBC series about staging a Broadway hit.
What’s more, specializing in stories about feuding family members, Rebeck also has credits as a novelist on her résumé.
No doubt her ventures into publishing inspired her latest play, “Seminar,” about four desperate wannabe authors who’ve shelled out $5,000 apiece to attend a ten-week master class taught by a vicious literary lion. They get way more than they bargained for.
Rebeck is at her best when exposing the slimy underbelly of human nature, and under the assured direction of Broadway newcomer Sam Gold, “Seminar” does not disappoint. Not long into the brisk, 90-minute production, it becomes clear that the supposedly noble pursuit of publishing literary fiction can be as cutthroat as, say, a hostile corporate takeover and brings out the worst in these students.
Douglas (Jerry O’Connell) is a pretentious windbag who drones about the “interiority and exteriority” of landscapes. He has the hots for Izzy (Hettienne Park), the class nymphomaniac, who’s got no problem showing her “tits” before the first session starts.
Kate (Lily Rabe), who hosts the seminar in her nine-room, rent-controlled Manhattan apartment, is at first appalled by the gruff teaching tactics and by her suck-up classmates. Later, she pulls some daring tricks of her own.
Martin (Hamish Linklater, who played opposite Julia Louis-Dreyfus in “The New Adventures of Old Christine”) is painfully self-conscious, afraid to share his work with the class. Although he has a thing for Kate, he manages to find solace with Izzy, even after dismissing her as a twit.
Jockeying for power and prestige, the aspiring writers do whatever it takes to get their stories in print. They falsely praise each other’s work, bitch behind each others backs, and some even take to screwing — in the betrayal and the sexual sense — without taking responsibility for the consequences.
Still, these conniving wretches pale in comparison to their noxious leader, Leonard, played to caustic perfection by Alan Rickman, known for, among other triumphs, portraying another oily instructor, Severus Snape, in the “Harry Potter” film franchise. Based on reading half the first sentence, Leonard judges Kate’s work a “soul-sucking waste of words.” He calls Martin a “pussy” and Douglas “skillful, but whorish.”
In lesser hands, Leonard’s rants would register as little more than pseudo-intellectual psychobabble. Yet Rickman coats Rebeck’s pompous, ego-stomping dialogue with suave charm, and he’s a delight to behold:
“Come on children we don’t have all night. What are we here for? Am I a fucking writer, or am I a fucking piece of shit coward? Am I trying to construct a living breathing cosmos with language, or am I just scratching on the wall of a cave?
As for the other performances, there is no weak link in this talented ensemble.
The production is grounded by David Zinn’s spacious, tastefully appointed Upper West Side living room, complete with a little cocktail bar that gets plenty of use. Toward the play’s climax, the set morphs into something else entirely, and it’s astonishing.
No doubt about it, “Seminar” has its share of head-scratching contrivances. Characters possess a supernatural ability to assess the writings with just a glance at the page. Their sexual exploits seem a little extreme, even for validation-hungry New Yorkers.
Plus, if they are investing so much in these workshops, couldn’t Kate bother to arrange appropriate seating? And couldn’t a certain couple refrain from, er, coupling at the moment class is scheduled?
Such lapses undercut the urgency of an otherwise intelligently crafted, oddly engrossing drama whose main thrust is quite simple –– all is fair in love and war… and literary fiction publishing, too.
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