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If there ever was a play that is Critic Proof and destined to win a boatload of Tonys it is Seminar by writer Theresa Rebeck and directed Sam Gold. In the opening scene it’s clear that this show is one that anyone who has created anything can relate to. All the characters are broad cliches, but there’s an element of truth in the caricatures. Writers, critics and artists of any stripe and status can immediately recognize these people.
Martin (Hamish Linklater) is the arrogant, neurotic friend who wants justice and criticizes everything. Douglass (Jerry O’Connell) is his opposite – the strutting, hot guy who has life pretty easy with a personality that reflects that. Izzy (Hettienne Park) is the hot friend who will not hesitate to use what god gave her to get ahead. Kate (Lily Rabe) is the one everyone envies because she lucked into an $800 rent controlled Upper East side apartment. As Douglass says “That’s like getting a grant without applying!”
The foil for these four wanna be artists is acclaimed writer Leonard, played perfectly by Alan Rickman. Rickman is wonderfully acerbic and snarky here. He never once brings out his inner Professor Snape in his delivery. Leonard is the teacher that we all hate – full of himself, critical of everything and not afraid to rip you apart by going after your weaknesses and fears. He disguises his bad behavior as being a slave to the “truth.” Unfortunately what drives you nuts is they are usually right. To add further insult, you have to pay a small fortune for the privilege of being abused. I firmly believe that some artists are closet masochists. How else do you explain the burning need to create and put yourself out there for the Leonards of the world? Martin is a perfect counter to Leonard. Whenever Leonard goes off on someone Martin is the one who cuts right back. The problem is Martin is scared to show his work to anyone, so he hides behind false bravado.
Leonard’s first victim is Kate who has worked on her story for years, he reads one sentence and knows everything there is to know about the story. It becomes a running joke for the rest of the play. The next week he says, sarcastically, of Douglass’s novel “This is competent story you’ll be really good as a Hollywood screenwriter. Unlike this really awful story that I read last week by some writer I can’t remember.” Even when he compliments someone, it comes across as a slam to the over sensitive people in the group. Because of course being a “Hollywood” writer to a bunch of pseudo intellectual snobs is beneath them.
Douglass is a character we all know, he’s a smart social climber who loves to name drop and throw around 25 cent words to make himself sound intelligent. Everything is on the surface with him and there doesn’t seem to be much depth. What you see is what you get. This is a perfect role for O’Connell and he is great. The play really doesn’t give Izzy much to do. Her character spends most of the play going from one guy to the next and Kate’s neurotic nature against Martin’s becomes a bit much. Lily and Hettienne do a fine job with what they were given.
At first it seemed odd that everyone, especially Leonard can dissect a thick manuscript and know whether they would like it by reading the first page – and sometimes even less, but then I realize it is like watching a movie. You know within ten minutes whether a movie is going to be good or not and as someone who has been reading a lot of prose writing lately, a book never magically improves from the first few pages to the end. If the writing style is poor and the characters aren’t interesting in the first five or ten pages seven out of 10 times that is not going to radically change by page 200. You probably based your opinion of my review on the first sentence.
Director Sam Gold does a great job with David Zinn’s minimalistic set that doesn’t change until the last few minutes of the 90 minute show. There are a couple of brief moments of unnecessary nudity that did not feel like it was organically part of the show. The problem with Seminar is that as funny and witty as it is, it comes across as something that we have all seen a thousand times before and two days removed there is not that one line of quotable dialog that will stay with you.
Seminar is currently playing at the Golden Theater in NY. Jeff Goldblum takes over for Alan Rickman starting April 3rd.