“Seminar,” a new play by widely produced playwright, Theresa Rebeck, has opened to generally positive critical assessments (with a few striking exceptions). “Seminar” can be described quite briefly. Four aspiring writers have paid $5,000 each for a series of 10 seminars with a washed up fiction writer who became a very powerful figure in the publishing world as an editor and feature writer. The sessions involve him giving a cursory look at sample writings of his students and then launching into tirades that reduce the writers to withering whiners or angry combatants. Of course, the teacher sleeps with his students and eventually gives a powerful self-assessment of his life as a writer (if not as a person) and eventually discovers that one his pupils may have a potential for greatness.
Well, I’m sad to report that I found “Seminar” less than satisfying. It was pleasant enough to watch (pleasant being an unusual but apropos word for an evening predicated on ruthless reductive rants). First, the cast is wonderful. It’s no surprise that Alan Rickman gives a bravura performance as the malcontent mentor, but the rest of the cast is truly right on the mark, especially Lily Rabe whose character appears to have the most dimension among the four would-be writers. She plays a child of wealth who occupies a lavish, rent-controlled apartment in New York. A feminist and a product of appropriate educational grooming, she becomes the most devastated victim of the teacher’s degradation. Hamish Linklater, on the other hand, makes the most out of the least defined of the four characters – an idealistic writer who is not afraid to criticize his classmates and a sceptic regarding their teacher. Mr. Linklater handles his character’s inevitable (and hackneyed) transformation into the most lauded of the bunch with as much subtlety as Ms. Rebeck’s script allows (subtlety is not this play’s modus operandi). And the direction by Sam Gold is very slick and focused.
But for me, this play is basically shallow; it stretches credibility to an incredible level, it is filled with pretentious design to make its audience feel literate, and makes predicable choices in what little plot the play contains. So, in that order, here are my problems:
Shallow: I left the theatre with no real message or insight. Is fiction a dying art? I think not; just ride the subways of NYC or watch the sales figures to refute that claim. Maybe we mean “good” fiction. And how does this play define “good” fiction? If you can figure that one out, you clearly saw things in the gibberish spouted by Mr. Rickman’s character that I missed (and that is possible). Instead, Ms. Rebeck fills all of the dialogue with entertaining, humorous, and well chosen references to what is thought to be high-brow culture in a manor that gives the audience the illusion that they too are high-brow (which they may or may not be, but that type of patronization is certainly not a noble ambition for a play). BTW – As much as I hate to admit it, these comments are dangerously close to the “New York Times” review by Ben Brantley, one of the dissenting critics (and not exactly the most high-brow of the current mainstream critics) and in opposition to one my favorite critics, John Lahr, of “The New Yorker,” who, by definition, caters to readers of “some type of brow”).
Credibility: Credibility is not a necessary component of comedy, of course. But Ms. Rebeck clearly wants us to feel for these characters: the feminist writer who is hung up on Jane Austin (and writes great fictional biographies of Cuban transvestite gang members); the successful would-be Kerouac name-dropper who is assessed by Mr. Rickman’s character to be a hack ready for Hollywood (there’s a stereotypical image for you); the young (and clearly troubled) idealist whose transformation provides the play’s theoretical happy ending, as he cautiously agrees to enter a world that has been painted as a superhighway to personal and professional ruin. As Mr. Brantley notes, the incredulity arises as soon as Rickman comes on stage, consistently judging works from a little as half of the first sentence and as much as two pages. OK, it’s a 90-minute comedy, and Ms Rebeck does not try to do the impossible: make a real analysis of literature into a theatrically engaging play. But she clearly expects us to accept the impact of these often funny literary put-downs to the characters. Aside from a few fleeting references to the students’ real lives (rent-controlled apartments, colleges, etc.), the only things we know about them is that they are aspiring writers. We must take that as reason enough to care about their fate.
Pretentious: Is this play a critique of teaching writing? Maybe a portrait of the artist as an old man? The death of serious literature? The failure of modern critical theory? Or is it an intellectual’s buddy story? It certainly plays as the latter, a sequence of stops along a road-trip with their revered teacher, each posing a new obstacle to their anticipated progress toward great writing. Ms. Rebeck does a fairly good job of giving each of the students characteristics, but characteristics do not necessary make characters that the audience can identify with or reject. But we do not know these characters as people, let alone artists. Instead, we hear their literate conversations and see each go through some pretty predictable side-shows (e.g., sleeping with each other and the teacher).
Given these limitations, the plays appeal seems to rely on its ability to make the audience feel sophisticated enough to follow and occasionally laugh at the characters’ commentaries on art and literature. I must admit, I did not know Yaddo (repeatedly cited in the play) is a famous artist’s retreat until I Googled it after the show, so maybe my accusation of pretention is borne of my own sense of intellectual inadequacy. I also usually skip the fiction section in “The New Yorker” (another target of Mr. Rickman’s vitriolic rants). So maybe this play is targeted toward a very specific and limited audience, a sort of subset of theatre-goers who are deeply engaged in the world of literature and publishing or teaching and developing writers. Or, given the size of potential audience who fit that description, maybe its designed for those who like to think of themselves as such, in which case the play is not pretentious so much as it is patronizing.
Predictability: In the end, the thin plot of this show is as original as a 1930s movie that told the story of a struggling performer (writers did not generally write about writers in those days) coming to terms with his or her self-confidence and true talent. In the play’s final 20 minutes we come to see the transformation of the two central students embrace their “true identity” and begin their journey to fulfillment with the blessing and mentorship of their now warm-heart (and repeatedly fucked – literally and figuratively) teacher, who was repeatedly and verifiably referred to as an “ass-hole” throughout the evening. It’s a sort of “Stage Struck” story: a star is born.
As I said, the experience of seeing the play is pleasant. The characters are interesting, if undeveloped and predictable. Ms. Rebeck writes well even if the content is thin. And the cast is superb. If you are in the play’s target subgroup (or just like to think of yourself that way), it can be rather engaging and satisfying – it’s sort of like a piece in one of those limited circulation literary magazines that you keep on your living room table: it looks good for visitors, but do you ever really get into it?