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Seminar – Review

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.

 
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Posted by on November 10, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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The American Plan & The Cripple of Inishman – Review

This weekend found me at The American Plan (Manhattan Theatre Club) and The Cripple of Inishmaan (Atlantic Theatre Company.)  As a lover of language, I spent most of the weekend a bit buzzed and am now suffering somewhat from a dialogue hangover (which presents itself in sufferers as a tendency to use small words and wishing for minimalism in others.)  Besides intensely rich dialogue, these plays shared several other attributes.  Both of these (straight) plays were sold out, and had installed additional seating!  This was confusing and very inspiring.  The audiences were also highly responsive, laughing, gasping and otherwise demonstrating attentiveness.  Both of these period pieces, The American Plan is set predominantly in 1960 and The Cripple of Inishmaan is set in 1934, use the narrative of the stories we tell ourselves and others, in order to navigate our way through life.  They also both have as their central characters, twenty year old challenged people.
The American Plan by Richard Greenberg (Take Me Out, The Violet Hour, etc.) and directed by David Grindley (Pygmallion, Journey’s End) is simply stunning.  Set across the lake from a Catskill resort, the story focuses on an emotionally unstable twenty year old Lili (Lily Rabe) and her mother of German origin, Eva Adler (Mercedes Ruehl.)  Their relationship has a slight hint of Light in the Piazza, in time period and maternal ambivalence about launching a flawed daughter into the world.  The Adler family is perfectly rounded out by servant turned companion Olivia (Brenda Pressley.)  Olivia’s quiet presence is jarring and reassuring throughout the play.  While all of the dialogue is stunning in its intelligence, humor and rhythm, it might be the one line of Olivia’s that will stay with me.  I will not give it (or my psyche) away, but it relates to the comfort of one’s own counsel. Mercedes Ruehl has got a character to die for in Eva.  She is rich and accented, both literally and figuratively and Ms. Ruehl knows exactly what to do with her.  She is a stunning woman and actress and it is mesmerizing to see her gripped with a bout of degeneration (Parkinsons?) from the vantage point of the second row.  Lily Rabe is heartbreaking, amazing and so terribly sad.  She is a tour de force.  The male lead/suitor Nick (Kieran Campion) is wonderful and perfectly suited to the role.  The set design is simplistic brilliance.  A dock on an incline, a table and two chairs and a curtain make up the set.  While the scene changes are plentiful, the period music and rapid fire transitions (the dock is on a turntable) do not give pause, in fact, it was the anti-Country Girl.  There are twists and turns in the story that result in an intensification of the audience’s connection to the characters.  The title of the play refers to the three-meal-a-day, anesthetizing resort meal plan that was popular during the 1960s.  It is also a reference to the prescribed expectations of our culture.  This is a sublime play, directed and staged and performed perfectly.  If you can see it, you will not be disappointed.
The Cripple of Inishmaan is written by the delectable Martin McDonagh (The Pillowman, The Leuitenant of Inishmore, The Beauty Queen of Leenane) and directed by Garry Hynes (Druid Theatre Company.)  It is set in the tiny and dull town of Inishmaan while a Hollywood film crew is scouting in nearby Inishmore.  This plot line is actually based on a real documentary filmed in Ireland at the time.  The “cripple” is twenty year old Billy (Aaron Monaghan) who has been abandoned and thus raised by his foster aunts (Dearbhala Molloy and Marie Mullen.)  Billy’s body is twisted in an agonizing manner and he suffers from respiratory distress throughout the play.  Mr. Monaghan manages to convey all this with a trained athlete’s commitment.  My body and lungs ached for him.  It is not possible that this play could be performed more than once a day.  It is an outrageously physically demanding role.  The remainder of the cast is predominantly Martin McDonagh players with one American exception (the doctor.)  They are all exquisite with the exception of the Irish accent of the American actor.  I would have preferred they had him speak in his own voice as Oliver Platt did in Shining City.  The story has several twists and turns and is almost flawless.  There is some violence that is gratuitous (this /is /McDonagh after all) and inconsistent with the character perpetrating the bashing.  Overall, the story is captivating.  Judging by the audience response, I suspect that this production will move to Broadway.  Before it does however, I suggest just a wee bit tightening up.  While the staging and effects are wonderful, particularly the lighting cue on the final exit (stellar!) there is some awkward business with eggs.  It is not particularly amusing, and very time consuming (not including the time taken for the crew to clean up!)  The dialogue/story could also use some tightening up.  It is a little too sprawling and slow in places.  Had I not seen The American Plan immediately prior, I would have no doubt been more captivated by this play.  It is good, just not as good as The Lieutenant of Inishmore or The Pillowman.

 
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Posted by on August 19, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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