Not all writing is the same. To write effective fiction (plays, stories, novels,) one must create a believable world. The writer starts with nothing and creates a reality. It can be a lonely and torturous task fraught with countless potential missteps. It is no wonder that there is a robust cottage industry of workshops, salons, colonies and retreats for these people.
One of these workshops is the setting for the new Theresa Rebeck play Seminar. Four young(ish) fiction writers are gathering weekly in an upper west side apartment to reap the wisdom and guidance of a larger than life writer/editor. The bombastic arrogant tutor, Leonard (Alan Rickman) creates a centrifuge where only the talented survive. The four writers; Lily Rabe, Hamish Linklater, Jerry O’Connell and Hettienne Park are easily recognizable types. Kate (Rabe) is our Bennington graduate host. She lives in her parent’s nine room rent – controlled apartment, presumably alone. Rabe is an absolutely delightful actress. (The part of Kate is somewhat mannered and at times Ms. Rabe’s similarity to her mother was staggering.) Martin (Linklater,) Kate’s friend from high school is quiet, insecure, stewing in his own juices. Douglas (O’Connell) is an amusing blowhard with a family name, connections and penchant for unknowingly inventing words. Izzy (Park) carries her sexuality like a miniature chihuahua. She is never without it and uses it as if she’s invented it. Three guesses which one of these people is the one with the earth shattering talent.
Seminar, directed by Sam Gold hits every performance note perfectly, yet it did not move me. The acting is superb, without question. And while, talking about writing is tantamount to dancing about architecture, that wasn’t entirely the issue. Let’s be clear though, navel gazing gets old fast, particular on a large Broadway stage. I think it was the cleanliness that left me cold. All but the last 20 minutes of the play are set in the sprawling overly decorated apartment. We never meet the rightful “owners” nor know anything about them. But would parents who sired a Bennington writer and have called the upper west side home for decades, really decorate with color coordinated books? I understand the point designer David Zinn was making, particularly at the reveal of Leonard’s dark loft groaning under the weight of thousands of books. But believability was sacrificed to make that particular point. None of the writers spoke of jobs or any means of support. Where on earth they did come up with 5,000 dollars each for this seminar? The only character who convinced me was Douglas. He’s been around the block. He is not a novice, having done his time at Yaddo and currently in conversations with The New Yorker. Making a connection with Leonard is a solid investment for Douglas and one no doubt paid for by his family. For the most part, the characters were too predictable as were their sexual dalliances. It was all a bit too tidy.
Taking nothing away from the performances or even the production as a whole, the play left me cold. However, I also walked out on Midnight in Paris. Please do not let the fact that I don’t consider “look how clever I am” to be a sufficiently entertaining premise, prevent you from enjoying this very solid and beautifully acted production.