nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
December 1, 2011
Seminar, the acerbic tale of literary manners by Theresa Rebeck, is a beautifully crafted comedy, directed with equal sureness of craft by Sam Gold. Rebeck and Gold know the characters and the audience; anyone who’s ever been in a writing workshop (which I would guess includes a higher percentage of the average Broadway audience than of another randomly selected group) will immediately recognize the attitudes, the nervous energy, the crippling anxieties layered under snappy defense mechanisms. Rebeck’s writing has a confident lightness of touch that makes the jokes feel earned, and the storytelling moves from scene to scene with crisp energy. But there’s also something darker here, a dose of profound cynicism about what literary success—and by extension, artistic success more broadly—actually means, or is, in contemporary culture.
At an expensive ($5000 a head) private writing seminar in a glamorous rent-controlled Upper West Side apartment, four aspiring novelists have gathered to worship at the feet of their teacher, Leonard, a man-of-letters-about-town who oozes condescension and self-importance but is supposedly both a life-changing teacher and amazingly connected in a way that can launch all of their careers. And it’s immediately clear that what they want from Leonard is validation of those fledgling ambitions; they want him to confirm their talent, not seriously critique their writing. As Kate says at one point, if he’d liked her work, she’d have kept thinking he was brilliant.
Douglas is the closest to success of any of them—he has a literarily connected uncle, an agent, and a few high-profile short-story publications. Kate, their host, has been reworking the same story for six years, after several writing teachers at Bennington gave it lukewarm praise. Izzy, sexually aggressive in both her work and her persona, has her eyes firmly on the prize: connections, book deals, entry into literati circles; she has the firmest grip on the fact that anything Leonard can teach them is less relevant than whether he will help them. And Martin, the purist who genuinely wants to still believe that artists are the soul of the culture, balanced between contempt of literary pretensions and fierce jealousy of literary success, has a thousand pages in a drawer that are not just unpublished, but unseen by any eyes but his own—pages he’s increasingly wary of sharing as the seminar goes on.
Leonard, meanwhile, for the majority of his time with them, is an unmitigated ass. He tosses Kate’s story aside after reading nothing more than the first sentence—well, not even the entire first sentence, but the first sentence up till its semicolon (and Alan Rickman can pack more derision into the word “semicolon” than most actors could do with an entire monologue). Whether he’s being a misogynist, a garden-variety jerk, or an accurate critic of bad writing is hard to say. He describes Douglas’s work as evidencing “a level of competence...that is chilling.” He and Izzy flirt blatantly and shamelessly, and for weeks, his main engagement with Martin is to call him a pussy. He tells his students that their measured praise for one another’s work is only evidence that it’s not very good. “If it were really good,” he says, “you’d fucking hate it.”
But, he claims, he always tells the truth. And, at least to the extent that he’s picking out and picking on characters in ways that match what we the audience already know about them, that may be the case. Since we don’t hear any of their writing—other than Kate’s famously derided half-sentence and a few snippets quoted from Douglas—all we can see is how he’s finding the weak spots in their personalities, how they respond to one another’s work, and how—with Martin as the hold-out—the goal quickly becomes how to engage Leonard, rather than how to write better. (One of the play’s most interesting trajectories is Kate’s negotiation of this idea, and the way Leonard responds to it.)
One could make the argument that Leonard is meant to be one of those revolutionary teachers who shatters his students’ illusions and pretensions to bring them to some great breakthrough. Or, and I think more accurately here, one could make the argument that it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what Leonard really thinks about their writing, or if he’s teaching them anything at all, or if he’s pissing them off. It doesn’t really matter whether he praises Izzy because he wants to have sex with her or because he thinks her work is good; it doesn’t matter whether he valorizes Martin’s prose because it’s actually brilliant or because he’s projecting his own younger self onto him. It matters that they all ultimately understand the game that’s going on here, where actual talent, even genius, is by no means a prerequisite to success—and success mostly means you’re successful, not necessarily good. At best, talent is one of the cards one could be holding—and not always the winning one, in the absence of connections, a thick skin, and a willingness to compromise. Leonard’s own career trajectory turns out to be in many ways a testament to that. And while it seems for some time that Martin, who wants to cling to his ideals, will resist even being praised by Leonard, eventually, even he ends up joining the game.
In the end, it seems, everyone gets something out of the seminar, as disastrous as it was; one starts to understand how Leonard keeps getting people to pay the exorbitant tuition. (The tidiness of the ending is a bit of polish I wish Rebeck had perhaps resisted a little, as is Leonard’s climactic self-revealing monologue that—albeit performed by Rickman with bravura—rings a little too much of the crime-novel denouement where the villain can’t resist the urge to confess every detail of his hitherto perfect crime.)
The piece is given a strikingly high-quality production on every level. It’s brightly directed by Sam Gold, who continues to do unusually sensitive, nuanced work with actors. And thus it’s no surprise that the acting is terrific across the board: Jerry O’Connell is cheerfully smarmy as Douglas, until his ego is actually bruised; and while Izzy is certainly the least developed character, Hettienne Park gives her enjoyable brashness. Lily Rabe brings to Kate a rueful self-awareness that enables her to ultimately rise above brittleness and fragility. And while Alan Rickman is clearly relishing every line, I was even more captivated by Hamish Linklater, whose expressive face wears a constant panorama of his every anxious, neurotic, mean-spirited, and desperately hopeful thought. Seminar is wittily designed, especially David Zinn’s costumes, which give so many character notes they almost supersede the need for exposition. The incidental music, by John Gromada, is sprightly and polished.
It’s a beautiful piece of craft, and thoroughly enjoyable. But what really makes it interesting to me is the fact that I can’t stop puzzling over whether the ultimate rapprochement between Martin and Leonard is a fairy-tale ending where true artistic talent wins out after all, or the exact opposite: a confirmation of the old-boy’s-club attitude, where the mentor praises the thing most similar to himself. All the characters end happily ever after, true, but the implications for the arts seem a bit more equivocal to me.