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New York Theater: Seminar

The program for SeminarSeminar by Theresa Rebeck,
Directed by Sam Gold,
101 Productions,Ltd..,
Golden Theatre,
January 24th, 2012

New York, NY: I had seven time slots to see theatre during my week in New York, and so many tantalizing possibilities to chose from. Seminar was one of my first choices, both for the subject matter, namely a workshop for young aspiring writers, and for the rare opportunity to see Alan Rickman on stage. Rickman and the other four cast members performed superbly, the on-stage energy and chemistry of the ensemble was remarkable and the design aspects were as excellent as I would expect of a Broadway production.

Yet I did not have a "wow - I really  want to see this again" response to this play and I left feeling vaguely disappointed. The next day I saw a matinee performance of Other Desert Cities and this helped clarify what for me was missing in Seminar.  I think the fundamental problem lies in the script which lacks tension and and is populated by shallow, facile characters.

The plot centers around Leonard (Rickman) a once-renowned novelist and professor, now editor and educator, who has signed up four young aspiring writers, Douglas (Jerry O'Connell), Martin (Hamish Linklater), Kate (Lily Rabe) and Izzy  (Hettienne Park), for a ten week private writing seminar. The sessions take place in Kate's apartment, a rent-controlled space owned by her family.  Kate is  a good writer who is defensive about her relative affluence, allowing her friend Martin to take advantage and move in with her.  Other than the fact that he was good enough to be accepted into the seminar by recommendation, Martin's writing ability is an unknown as  he refuses to present his work for criticism. Douglas is a competent writer, preppy and full of jargon words like "interiority and exteriority" but who has the social connections to get his work reviewed and possibly published. Hetienne trades on her sexuality to get away with minimal effort in her writing.

Rebeck is a Pulitzer nominated writer with extensive experience in writing for film and television as well as the stage. The play is billed as a comedy but I guess apart from occasional moments I did not get the humour. The characters were just not believable, more caricature than portrait for much of the play, and the sex and gratuitous nudity added to the cartoonish nature of the characters rather than fleshing them out, so to speak. The play only begins to feel real near the end with Leonard's brilliant monologue about the life of a writer.  The final scene between Martin and Leonard is the most real part of the play although Kate's presence and her reason for being at Leonard's  apartment adds little to the story.

Overall I am pleased I saw the play, if only to appreciate the performances of Rickman and the other four actors. I stayed for the talk back after the show. I found it interesting that the discussion was all about the actors' background and experience. Neither the moderator nor anyone in the audience asked anything significant or commented directly about the play itself. That is to me of itself a telling commentary on the play.