There’s an inescapable irony in Theresa Rebeck’s play SEMINAR when the bilious novelist (Alan Rickman) who’s reluctantly teaching a group of aspiring young writers launches an attack on one of them by predicting that his “whorishness” will make him more suited for a life in Hollywood than one in the finer precincts of the arts. Rebeck herself has recently acquired a corner of the pop zeitgeist all her own: she’s the creator and head writer (sole writer of the initial 3 episodes) of Smash, a little TV effort of which you may have heard.
Seminar, a small-scale play performed (except for one scene) on a single set and without intermission, is far from the big-budget glitz of Smash. Both works, though, share a way of looking at the arts that parades world-weariness and cynicism while barely hiding an idealism verging on sentimentality. In Seminar, the artistic effort of choice is the writing of fiction: Preppy Kate (Lily Rabe), who may not be rich but has a fabulous rent-controlled apartment in the family, has organized the seminar and is one of the 4 participants paying thousands of dollars each to have Leonard (Rickman) read their work and provide individualized critiques. Other students include Douglas (Jerry O’Connell), who Has Connections and has already had short pieces published, and Izzy (Hettienne Park), a young woman far more comfortable with her sexuality than Kate is. Most crucial is Martin (Hamish Linklater), on whom Kate has a crush obvious to everyone except Martin.
Each student submits more-or-less meekly to the eloquent assassinations of talent and character that seem to be Leonard’s only mode of communication–except Martin, who refuses to submit his writing to the teacher. This being a play, that can mean only one of two possibilities: Martin is a fraud, or he’s a genius. (Warning: Spoilers Ahead) As it turns out, the latter is the case–although, as so often happens with narratives depicting fictional genius, the bits and pieces of Martin’s work that we hear about certainly don’t sound as remarkable as we keep being told they are. Martin’s writing prompts, finally, a show of legitimate emotion from Leonard, who reveals himself underneath it all to be as devoted and self-sacrificing for his art as any of his young charges.
All through Seminar, the soap opera aspects of who ends up sleeping with whom have been fairly glib (when Kate is miserable, she gorges on ice cream), but Rebeck gets away with that, because these callow characters’ choices about whom to sleep with are meant to be fairly glib too. When things turn serious at the end, though, and reverence for Literature is being invoked, the play becomes problematic: the notion that Leonard, with his decades of anger and profound bitterness, merely has to read a promising manuscript to be transformed into a self-effacing champion of art is one that’s more romantic than believable (writing talent is treated almost like a super-power), and Martin for his part becomes a character increasingly unable to bear the narrative burden placed on him.
Much of Seminar works, though, because Rebeck supplies plenty of snappy dialogue before things get too self-important, and the play. fluidly directed by Sam Gold, has a great cast. It’s not exactly a stretch for Alan Rickman to play an ill-tempered professor who resents his students (he must have to restrain himself from deducting nightly points from Gryffindor), but there are few actors more enjoyable to watch in that part. Rabe is so strong as Kate that one wishes Rebeck had provided a less dismissive ending for her character. Linklater almost manages to pull off Martin, although he can’t quite make the final scene work. O’Connell and Park, despite having much less substance to work with, are consistently engaging.
The flaws of Seminar
–plot turns for the sake of diversion alone, a point of view less challenging than it initially appears–are associated not so much with serious artistic statement as they are wth popular entertainment… like television. Perhaps the real happy ending to this story happened off-stage. (Although given last night’s ratings