Broadway Reviews

Seminar

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
Theatre: Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Schedule: Tuesday - Thursday at 7 pm, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, Wednesday & Saturday at 2 pm, Sunday at 3 pm.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission
Audience: May be inappropriate for 12 and under. (The show contains a brief moment of partial female nudity and some adult language that is likely not unfamiliar even to younger teenagers.) Children under the age of 4 are not permitted in the theatre.
Ticket prices: $51.50 - $199.50
Tickets: Telecharge

Seminar
Jerry O’Donnell with Alan Rickman.
Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

If a novel is a true page-turner, does it matter if you don’t learn anything from it? And does the same apply to theatre? Those questions are the heart of what’s right and wrong with Seminar, the new play by Theresa Rebeck that just opened at the John Golden. There’s not a single original thought to be found in this 100-minute snapshot of the four students and teacher suffering together through a 10-week private writing class. Yet because the story is capably told, and paired with compelling direction and astute acting, you constantly find yourself leaning forward into it, and (gasp) not wanting it to end. Call it the Da Vinci Code Dilemma or the Harlequin Romance Effect: You’ll be giddy in the moment, but wracked with shame afterward.

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.)

Seminar
Lily Rabe, Hamish Linklater, and Hettiene Park.
Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

But if Leonard’s ministrations, and the shuffling and reshuffling of allegiances, alliances, and bed partners within the conclave that results from them, are strictly of the paint-by-numbers varieties, the scope and yearnings of the characters are developed and explored well enough that they’re never boring. And once the action becomes more centrally about Martin and how he responds to what’s happening around him, it becomes even more personal and satisfying. Finding a focus on one facet gives the play somewhere to go, and the journey there energizes what would otherwise undoubtedly be a listless couple of final scenes. Rebeck’s take on the group dynamic begins rapidly wearing thin just as she abandons it, and recognizing that it can’t take her all the way and adjusting her bearings is worthy of praise.

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.


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