Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 20, 2011
Seminar by Theresa Rebeck. Directed by Sam Gold. Scenic & costume design by David Zinn. Lighting design by Ben Stanton. Original music & sound design by John Gromada. Cast: Alan Rickman, Lily Rabe, Hamish Linklater, Jerry OConnell, Hettienne Park
True, deceptively disposable theatre is basically Rebecks stock in trade. Her one previous Broadway venture, Mauritius, was a popcorn-ready caper; and Off-Broadway outings like The Understudy, Our House, The Scene, and Spike Heels unseriously touched on serious ideas, to varying degrees of success. But as this one begins with a discussion of the Yaddo artists community in Saratoga thats almost parodically empty (...its this astonishingly sculpted landscape, where everything seems to be sculpted out of trees and water so that interiority and exteriority meet...), you have every reason to believe that youre soon going to be sitting up to your hips in an especially vapid (and likely useless) literary satire, of both works of haughty pseudo-literature and the people who create them.
You arebut only for a while. Until shes ready to move beyond this limited setup, Rebeck doles out plenty of fun by way of a gaudy assortment of characters smartly drawn enough to transcend their own stock beginnings. They meet in a stylish Upper West Side palace (designed by David Zinn) once a week to discuss their latest efforts putting words to paper. Douglas (Jerry OConnell) hails from a semi-famous family, and is burdened with lofty legacy expectations going in (hes the one who thrives on Yaddo). Izzy (Hettienne Park) is the outwardly free spirit who wants to collapse boundaries about women and sex. Kate (Lily Rabe) is the much-encouraged Wunderkind whos been polishing the same story for six years, and is sure its destined for greatness. Martin (Hamish Linklater) is the get-along cynic who has yet to summon the courage to present anything of his own.
Their instructor is Leonard (Alan Rickman), a famous ex-novelist who hasnt published a thing in 32 years and now teaches and edits. Hes the type whos honest at anyone and everyones expense, willing to unload weeks of vitriol on Kate over the first sentence of hers he reads, praise Izzys mildly sensual voice based on a page and a half, and break down Douglass entire sure-to-be-sad career based on his skillful, but whorish style. He reduces someone in the group to tears, drives someone away and a couple of others together, and always seems to be about promoting himself and his brand of brilliance above whomever hes supposed to be critiquing. (The character as written is not observably British, but Rickmans accent gives Leonard an undeniable Simon Cowell vibe.)
So too is director Sam Gold. Making his Main Stem debut after a string of impressive Off-Broadway efforts with works The Black Eyed, Kin, and most notably Circle Mirror Transformation, he burnishes every moment to a dazzling shine, and maintains a rigidly regimented pacing that doesnt let a single plot point or line of dialogue escape the notice it deserves. More important is that he establishes and maintains a properly creepy claustrophobia that lets you understand how trapped everyone is by something, but does so with a light hand that never compromises Rebecks genial comedic atmosphere. Gold cant work his peculiar magic of extracting shocking depth from apparently ordinary conversationmost of the dialogue is simply too insubstantial for that to workbut he finds more in whats there than your senses tell you should be possible.
As do the actors. Rickman is something of a standout because of his delightfully dry oiliness, and his arch delivery makes each of Leonards barbs, whether they last a single sentence or approach Proustian lengths, a lacerating pleasure. But this is not a star vehicle, its an ensemble piece, and Rickmans costars are all impressive. Parks saucy, sarcastic delivery ensures that Izzy is exactly the erotic fulcrum she needs to be. In his Broadway debut, OConnell proves deft at walking the difficult line between likeably haughty and lithely hatefulno small feat, as hes portraying the smarmiest person onstage. Rabe is alternately hilarious and heart-rending as she sweeps through the full colorful spectrum of emotions of a victim determined to not let herself be down forever. And Linklater negotiates Martins evolution from prostrate indifference to power with energetic, pliable aplomb.
None of them is good enough to elevate Seminar to high art. But each and every one treats Rebecks writing as though its actually saying something profound about the literary condition rather than spouting cobwebbed bromides about the soul-sucking nature of Hollywood, the necessary evil of editors, how great writing deserves to be shared with the world, and so on. That does add a touch of pleasing weight to a show thats as elaborately appointed as anything this feather-light can possibly be. It may not be enough to create an evening that flourishes in the grand scheme of things, but its enough to guarantee a solidly good timeregardless of how much you think you probably shouldnt be having one.