‘Seminar’: A Hilarious, If Unsurprising, New Play

There’s a scene in Theresa Rebeck’s new play Seminar, in which Lily Rabe’s Kate, having just had the story she’s spent six years writing eviscerated by the mean-spirited Leonard (played by the sharp-tongued Alan Rickman), emerges on clutching a two-litre bottle of Diet Coke, a bag of chips, and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. "I’m depressed and I’m trying to make myself feel better. Is that all right with you?" she yells at Martin, an aspiring writer who is also paying Leonard $5,000 to critique his work. The moment gets a huge laugh. The scene, along with a third-act set change from a glorious Upper West Side apartment to a cluttered and dark downtown loft space, is one of the surprises in Seminar, a hilariously acted and handsome production of a conventional, unsurprising comedy. 

The image of an uptight, female Manhattanite reacting to the verbal destruction of her creative output’s limited worldview with junk food isn’t an especially shocking one, and it’s an example of several stock characteristics that fill up Seminar. Rabe and the rest of the cast handle these stereotypes gracefully, injecting their roles with a humanity that is surprising to find in a satire. Joining Rabe and Rickman are three accomplished actors making their Broadway debuts: Hamish Linklater as the awkward Martin, a Brooklyn literary type struggling with a fear of rejection; Jerry O’Connell as the pretentious Douglas, the nephew of a famous, unnamed author; and Hettienne Park as the sexy Izzy, who is the object of the three men’s amorous affections. 

Plenty of moments in Rebeck’s script touch on familiar themes of creative frustration and existentialism. The four young students in the seminar struggle with their own authenticity as Leonard, an accomplished novelist turned magazine writer who brags of his excursions in third-world countries, blasts them for not exploring topics outside of their own comfort zones. Martin, perhaps the most fully developed character, deals with his crippling fear of failure by keeping his work to himself and attacking Douglas for his pedestrian and showy approach to the craft. He’s an intellectual and literary idealist, and the establishment and utlimate collapse of rapport with Leonard allows Rebeck to take a subtle look at the larger career of a fiction writer. While Rickman and Rabe are the stars of the show, Linklater delivers a standout performance.

The major issue, of course, is that anyone who has been in a creative writing seminar will recognize that it’s not quite possible for a character to read handfuls of sentences and applaud an entire text as exquisite. Yet that happens several times in the play: Grand pronouncements of brilliance are delivered by characters who glanced at the material for just seconds. The stories are never read aloud for the audience’s benefit, so it’s difficult to see those moments as anything other than a flaw in the narrative. Having said that, Seminar is a satire, one that runs for less than two hours, and a couple of literary readings would definitely bring the production to a standstill. The play already suffers from an uneven momentum, with the first half’s speedy dialogue a misleading introduction to the second half’s slow, somewhat serious tone. 

Despite the script’s flaws, Seminar makes for a compelling and hilarious night of theater thanks to the ensemble’s performances and Sam Gold’s near-perfect direction. Rebeck succeeds at crafting smart and snappy dialogue, peppered with enough middle-brow cultural references to make even your average TKTS receipt-carrying philistine feel like an academic by the show’s end.

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