Monday, January 16, 2012

Lit Wit: Theresa Rebeck's Seminar

Hamish Linklater, Alan Rickman, Jerry O'Connell, Lily Rabe & Hettienne Park in Seminar. (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)

Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar, currently on Broadway, is a hard-boiled comedy about literary life that trades on our fantasies about writers in a highly entertaining fashion. Four aspiring twenty-something writers meet weekly in an Upper West Side apartment to show their work to a celebrated editor and get his response. Kate (Lily Rabe), a Bennington grad from a blue-chip background, is renting the luxurious venue, with its Hudson River view, from her father for an unheard-of low price. (One of her peers describes her lifestyle as “socialism for the rich.”) Douglas (Jerry O’Connell), an insufferable self-promoter with connections, has just returned from Yaddo, the artists’ colony, where he honed a story that’s under consideration at The New Yorker. Izzy (Hettienne Park) puts sex front and center in her work – she claims it’s the most important element in fiction – and flaunts her own sexuality, though the fact that she’s still living with her parents undercuts the daring of her forays into the adult world. The only member of the quartet without a whiff of privilege is Kate’s friend Martin (Hamish Linklater), who moves into her apartment early in the play because he’s being evicted from his own. Leonard (Alan Rickman), a rude, profanely sardonic, self-styled-hipster narcissist whom they’ve hired at an exorbitant fee, tears into their submissions, dismissing Kate’s after the first sentence as lethally boring and tempering his praise for Douglas’s accomplished style with a slam at his quickness to pander to his readers. (He calls him a whore and recommends he move to Hollywood.) And as he does so, he exposes their fragile egos, their terrors (week after week, Martin declines to pass over any of his own novel for Leonard’s inspection), their jealousies (Kate has a crush on Martin and resents the attention he pays to Izzy, who seduces him effortlessly), and the lengths to which their increasing desperation in this competitive literary hothouse atmosphere drives them.

Rebeck, an NYPD Blue alum with an impressive number of produced plays, has written the kind of glittering comic dialogue that used to be a mainstay during Broadway’s golden age (the twenties and thirties) but that you almost never run into these days. When you do encounter a playwright who knows how to turn a line, like Stephen Karam, whose Sons of the Prophet received excessively laudatory notices both in Boston last season and in New York this season, his or her talent is usually better suited to TV sitcoms than to the stage. Seminar, by contrast, is a sustained piece of writing: it’s well structured, and it gets funnier as it goes on. And Sam Gold’s brisk, impeccably acted production gives the play an ideal showcase. Rickman imports his trademark world-weary wit, dry and scalding. He’s like a Noël Coward character for a post-modern world, proud of how life has flayed him, still capable of aiming a razor insult with deadly accuracy. Rickman makes droning an art – his wound-up tirades are feats of vocal calisthenics. He’s such a master of British stage technique that you wonder if four young American actors (actually, O’Connell will be 38 next month, but he has no trouble pulling off a character who’s probably a decade younger) can hold their own with him. But they’re all terrific. Rabe, whose scratched alto suggests a gin-soaked version of Margaret Sullavan, gives a performance of extraordinary skill. She’s especially good in the second half, when Kate, who’s been crippled by a neurotic tendency to hang back, is motivated by her anger (at both Leonard and Martin, for their different sorts of rejection) to turn calculating and imaginative. Rabe, the daughter of the playwright David Rabe and the late actress Jill Clayburgh, was a splendid Portia opposite Al Pacino in last season’s brilliant revival of The Merchant of Venice, but she’s even more impressive here. The other performer worth singling out is Linklater, whose wry readings are sometimes deadpan and at other times pop like champagne corks.

Jerry O'Connell as Douglas and Lily Rabe as Kate (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)

The play is great fun, and the fact that you don’t believe a word of it isn’t a shortcoming. After all, who believes a word of The Front Page or Once in a Lifetime, the two best hard-boiled comedies ever brought to the stage? Unlike those, however, Seminar has a core of sentimentality – and that is a problem in this genre, which is cynical and satirical in tone and professes a jaded, uncompromising vision of the world. The play seems to be set up to skewer Leonard, to repay him for the viciousness of insults passing as criticism, for his cavalier attitude toward these students, for his high-handedness and casual sexism. He praises Izzy, who turns him on, but he tells Kate to write like a man, not a silly schoolgirl. Kate, devastated by Leonard’s criticism of a story she’s labored over for six years, tells him she’s withdrawing from the group and volunteers a friend of hers to replace her, offering up the beginning of a memoir he’s sent her. The writer is a cross-dressing Chicano coke dealer – a preposterous notion that’s right up Leonard’s alley: he’s just returned from a trip to Serbia, where his exposure to what he calls “the most terrifying nihilism the world has ever known” has given his machismo a solid work-out. In fact, the Chicano memoirist is Kate’s invention, and the prose, which Leonard gets excited over, is her own. Then Martin uncovers a story in Leonard’s past that explains why he stopped writing and became an editor: an undergraduate he was teaching exposed him as a plagiarist. But Rebeck backs down. It turns out that Leonard is a gifted writer whose career was sandbagged by a lie (he didn’t plagiarize the student’s work), that he’s dedicated to using his cachet to help these literary hopefuls, and that his radar for both good and bad prose is unerring. He isn’t fooled by Kate’s trick: he knows the faux memoir is hers, but he also knows that the lean, vibrant writing in it is infinitely superior to the dead horse she’s been flogging for half a dozen years. And he rescues Martin, who turns out to be the most talented of them all. Seminar is very amusing but it substitutes a more superficial kind of satisfaction for the kick it promises. The wind-up could have been written by Douglas.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny ReviewThe Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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