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 O’Connell, Hettienne Park
True, deceptively disposable theatre is basically Rebeck’s 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 that’s almost parodically empty (“...it’s 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 you’re 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 are — but only for a while. Until she’s 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 O’Connell) hails from a semi-famous family, and is burdened with lofty legacy expectations going in (he’s 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 who’s been polishing the same story for six years, and is sure it’s 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 hasn’t published a thing in 32 years and now teaches and edits. He’s the type who’s honest at anyone and everyone’s expense, willing to unload weeks of vitriol on Kate over the first sentence of hers he reads, praise Izzy’s mildly sensual voice based on a page and a half, and break down Douglas’s 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 he’s supposed to be critiquing. (The character as written is not observably British, but Rickman’s 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 doesn’t 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 Rebeck’s genial comedic atmosphere. Gold can’t work his peculiar magic of extracting shocking depth from apparently ordinary conversation — most of the dialogue is simply too insubstantial for that to work — but he finds more in what’s 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 Leonard’s barbs, whether they last a single sentence or approach Proustian lengths, a lacerating pleasure. But this is not a star vehicle, it’s an ensemble piece, and Rickman’s costars are all impressive. Park’s saucy, sarcastic delivery ensures that Izzy is exactly the erotic fulcrum she needs to be. In his Broadway debut, O’Connell proves deft at walking the difficult line between likeably haughty and lithely hateful — no small feat, as he’s 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 Martin’s 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 Rebeck’s writing as though it’s 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 that’s 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 it’s enough to guarantee a solidly good time — regardless of how much you think you probably shouldn’t be having one.