Within the world of Theresa Rebeck’s rippingly good new play, Seminar, it’s apparently possible to read and pass judgment on works of fiction in a mere flash of stage time. Hand Leonard (Alan Rickman) a two-page sample and he’s through in a matter of seconds – with a longer manuscript, a response after a minute or two and ten or so flips of pages isn’t uncommon.
As unrealistic as these lightning-fast assessments may seem upon first consideration, there’s a comment being made here on the hastiness of professors’ (particular fiction professors’) judgments and the alternately boastful and preciously protective natures of writers, whose skins come in varying degrees of thickness.
Rebeck’s play is essentially crafted as a star vehicle for Alan Rickman, who, as Leonard, the leader of a seminar for emerging or as-yet-unemerged writers, is equipped with the best barbs and, in the play’s second half, a wickedly good second-person monologue on the rollercoaster ups and downs of the life of a middle-of-the-road writer.
As the play begins, four young writers – swishy Yaddo-loving Douglas, nebbishy Martin, sensible Kate, and Izzy, the firebrand – have assembled in Kate’s posh rent-controlled apartment, ready for a lesson in writing. They’ve each paid $5,000 for a weeks-long course with Leonard, an editor who was once a great writer. What they get instead is a tirade about the triviality of Kate’s story, the class’s first writing specimen, a story that she’s crafted to include an homage to Jane Austen but which utterly fails to capture Leonard’s writerly imagination.
Rebeck smartly structures the play so that we see the progression of the class through the weeks – as Izzy develops a thing with Leonard and then Martin and as Martin’s and Kate’s relationship deepens (or does it?). As audience members, we grow to care for each of them. Subsequently, as Leonard’s cartoonishness is shed and his insecurities are allowed to surface, we come to care for him as well.
Rickman was surely one of the primary reasons to mount this piece, which is skillful but ultimately lacking in import. Fortunately, however, he’s matched by his four costars, particularly Lily Rabe, whose husky-voiced embodiments of strong-willed female characters are consistently fine (see last season’s The Merchant of Venice for an example).
Hamish Linklater is wholly winning as Martin, whose reticence to show his work week after week eventually gives way to the revelation that he just may be the brightest star of the bunch. Film star Jerry O’Connell more than holds his own, as does Hettienne Park, whose character is perhaps the least developed but who nonetheless adds a layer of sexual tension that’s welcome in a play about writing.
When Rebeck’s stage-burner of a play gains the momentum of a page-turner, it’s truly thrilling. Kate, after having been beaten down for Leonard, declares that “Writers aren’t people.” Well, it turns out that according to Leonard, “the biggest problem with being a writer finally is that all your readers are human beings.” It’s with these observations – about writers as animals – that Rebeck scores her most salient points.
In the play’s final third, the austerity of Kate’s apartment gives way to the mess of Leonard’s loft (thanks to David Zinn’s fluid set design) and souls are further bared as the characters we’ve grown to understand act in ways we had least expected. Rebeck’s play is playful but ultimately just weighty enough to pack a punch. Seminar makes for a satisfying night at the theatre if only as a means of witnessing the zoological instincts of a pack of writers struggling with the notion that no one may ultimately care about what they write – at least not as much as they do.