Fame. Seduction. Sex. Love. Temptation. Words. Stories rely on powerful words to captivate their audience’s attention. Without a strong lead and emotionally moving events, a story can fail to win over the heart of its reader. Seminar, the new dark comedy from playwright Theresa Rebeck, tries to unveil the truths behind writing the perfect piece of fiction. With strong acting, a modern and compelling design, and raunchy rumor, this new piece is smart, sexy, and highly entertaining; however, several hours after the audience leaves the theatre and begins to reflect on the meaning of the piece, it might be hard for them to find an answer. This issue is a small problem for a piece that centers on writing the perfect story - developed characters, strong plot, and a message that reaches out and attacks its audience. Seminar, while funny and grand in the moment, fails to live up to the potential of the perfect story.
In the heart of New York City, a group of five people meet each week. Some are rich, while others have recently lost their apartment. Some have family connections, and other sleep their way to the top. One is the master, and four are young writers desperately trying to impress the master - by any means necessary. Kate, a young woman who has put love aside to write one great story, lends her apartment out for a fiction writing master class led by the prestigious Leonard. Douglas with family connections, Izzy with a sex appeal, and Martin with a complex join Kate to make up the class. Before long, it becomes clear that Leonard hits below the belt and does not give two shits whether you like what he has to say or not. Writing is not easy. It requires you to pour your whole body and soul into pieces of paper. As four ambitious writes start this journey in fiction writing, they soon learn that Leonard is about to give them a seminar in the importance of words, love, and life.
An ensemble of five pushes this piece to the brink delivering performances that are passionate despite the wordiness of the piece. Alan Rickman (known around the world for his portrayal of Professor Snape in the Harry Potter film saga) takes top billing for his portrayal as Leonard, the balls to the wall seminar leader. Rickman is considered one of the best actors of this generation; while this performance will not go down as one of his top five, he still shines in a role that others would not even begin to know how to create. Leonard is written extremely fierce, unloving, and almost inhuman; however, Rickman finds this characters heart and little by little allows it to shine through to the characters surrounding him, especially Martin the timid played by Hamish Linklater of The New Adventures of Old Christine fame. Linklater is the true shining star in the piece. While the others came off as characterizations at times, Linklater always kept Martin based in reality - always feeling human and vulnerable. His strong compassion for his work drives each and every move he makes, relationship he starts, and page he types. While the character might come across as crazy, jealous, and insecure, Martin is the silent but deadly type brought into full reality by shining star Linklater. Lending out your space only to be crushed by person after person is no easy task for Kate, played by Lily Rabe (Tony Award nominated for The Merchant of Venice). Rabe plays the “’every girl” - the one that people can easily see themselves in. Love just never comes knocking; family ties leave false impressions; and, work just never appears to be good enough. Rabe takes this part and runs with it, pulling on the hearts of the audience; however, with no fault to her own, the character takes a strange nose dive in an awkward direction leaving the audience to feel lost and confused as to who Kate really is as a writer and person. Rabe battles again this strange plot point to develop a character that shows the daily life of most Americans. Tagging on for the master class of their lifetime is Douglas the arrogant, Jerry O’Connell (films Jerry Maguire and Scream 2), and sexy Izzy, Hettienne Park (Public’s production of Tiny Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide…). O’Connell is full of energy and life upon the stage, bringing his character boyish charm mixed with sophisticated arrogance. Park, however, lands a little flat (excluding when she flashes the entire audience only ten minutes into the piece) in her performance. Taking the laid back approach to Izzy, Park consistently stays at one level. While this level is strong and captivating, her character never travels anywhere to have the journey that the others do. Seminar relies on a cast that can gel well together; this ensemble works extremely well with one another to take a piece that could easily land face down in the dirt and make it a master class in ensemble work.
Theresa Rebeck (The Understudy and Omnium Gatherum) brings the underground scene of fiction writing into the world of theatre, creating a dark comedy that is funny, but ultimately goes against what the piece is about - writing the perfect story, or play. With extremely wordy dialogue and underdeveloped characters, Seminar coast through as a fun show to watch, but not one to stop and reflect on. This fun 90 minute piece is driven by director Sam Gold (Drama Desk nominated for Circle Mirror Transformation at Playwright Horizons). While Rebeck delivers a fast moving script, Gold at some points went against that allowing for longer sifts in scene leaving the audience edgy and a bit bored. The movement of the actors was crisp, but never really allowed for charter choices to be made. Pretty picture were created by Gold, but there never felt like there was strong motivation behind the movements. Creating the atmosphere around and on the actors is scenic and costume designer David Zinn (costume design for the current Other Desert Cities). Creating the world of upper-class New York, Zinn does a nice job of bringing together modern style and color to create a space that most people in the audience wish they had to call their own. Lighting this world is designer Ben Stanton (Off-Broadway’s recent production of Angels In America - Parts 1 and 2), who used bright light mixed with cooling blues to give the feel of New York City nightlife. This lighting, however, quickly sifted to extremely dark and ominous when the action shifts to Leonard’s apartment for the final scene. While the intent of the design is creatively thought out, the stage is simply to dark for such a crucial final moment in the play. Bringing the design together is an original score written by John Gromada (the current Man and Boy). With sharp notes that blend jazz and pop, the score fits the style of the piece perfectly; however, it is over showed by the long shifts in scenes that damper the production.
Seminar works hard to deliver a piece of theatre that will make you think; however, it simply makes you laugh. While this is not a bad quality, the show needs some more care and attention before it will impact the lives of the audience each night. If you think Alan Rickman is super cool, you want to see a bright young actor form in Hamish Linklater, or you simply want to enjoy a laugh at the theatre, then Seminar will definitely entertain, it might not move to become the next best fiction writer.