There are terrible moments of silence in Theresa Rebeck's new Broadway play.
No, not to worry: None of the actors has forgotten a line or flubbed a cue while performing in the wonderful new comedy "Seminar," which had its world premiere on Sunday. Those pauses are just the moments where everyone in the Golden Theatre is frozen, staring at Alan Rickman.
The former "Harry Potter" professor plays a crass, pugnacious novelist-turned-tutor to a group of four budding writers. Each week, he unhappily examines their offerings — pages from fledgling stories on which they've poured their souls — with a casual flip. His students cower as he reads, awaiting the verdict.
It's usually bad. He's likely to lacerate them with remarks such as, "It's perfect, in a kind of whorish way." To another, he says, "There's no subject or story or idea or meaning." Or, to another in disgust: "I'm not even making it through your first sentence."
This economic play — clocking in at 100 minutes with no intermission — still manages to say a lot about the pain and costs of creating art. It is funny, witty and painfully aware — easily one of Rebeck's best works. Director Sam Gold has drilled home the truth of her words and added a little frisky sexiness. An excellent cast of five — Rickman is joined by Lily Rabe, Hamish Linklater, Jerry O'Connell and Hettienne Park — give Rebeck's words a believable three-dimensional life.
It hits Broadway in a season when two other plays have explored the idea of writers making a mess of their lives for their art — "The Submission" at MCC Theater about a playwright who fakes his identity to get published, and "Other Desert Cities" now on Broadway about a novelist whose strident memoir about her dead brother turns out to have some rather large holes. Weirdly, both have echoes here.
Playwrights writing about writing might seem a bit navel-gazing, but not in Rebeck's hands. Making her return to Broadway since 2007's "Mauritius," she offers a frank appraisal of the soul-torturing world of authors. "Writers in their natural state are about as civilized as feral cats," she writes in one of several zingers.
The play opens in the snazzy Upper West Side apartment — David Zinn's set emphasizes chic Scandinavian furniture lines, modern art and expensive wood — of Kate (Rabe), a writer with a Jane Austen obsession and an obsession with a short story on which she has been working for six long years.
She's hosting a private seminar in which she and three others have paid $5,000 each to be taught by Leonard (Rickman), a one-time writer and editor who promises them guidance. Also attending as students are the talented but insecure Martin (Linklater), the average but name-dropping writer Douglas (O'Connell) and the sex pot intellectual Izzy (Park).
Seeking Leonard's favor, the four students naturally turn on each other. The seminar becomes a hothouse of insecurities, where one student's success is considered another's failure and where a comment like "it had some nice things in it" is damning indeed. Sexual frustrations bubble about as these feral cats seek relief from the pressure.
Leonard's unwillingness to sugarcoat anything puts the seminar at risk of imploding, but Rebeck takes us to his paper-strewn apartment for a neat final scene that shows us who this broken writer really is.
Rickman is clearly very good at playing arrogant and sneering, but he shows a touchingly vulnerable side while also delivering a lacerating monologue about what the publishing industry does to young talent and how words can really hurt. Rabe has a coltish immaturity that ages into weary pride by the end, and Linklater is excellent as the nerdy — but needy — wannabe intellectual who is really just a boy.
Who turns out to be the best writer of the bunch? That's easy — Theresa Rebeck.
There are teachers who gently coax their charges. And then there’s Leonard, the brilliant editor who runs the titular fiction workshop in Theresa Rebeck’s new Broadway comedy “Seminar.” His inspiration isn’t “Dead Poets Society” but “Full Metal Jacket.”
And few actors could have fun with Leonard like the butterscotch-voiced Alan Rickman, a master of the withering put-down and the contemptuous side glance.
Casually bulldozing his students’ egos, Leonard describes a submission as “skillful, but whorish,” another as “a soul-sucking waste of words.” He’s the dark star that both attracts and repels the younger characters.
This could easily have led to a one-man show of sorts, but luckily rising director Sam Gold (“Circle Mirror Transformation,” “Kin”) has matched Rickman with a champion ensemble.
Jerry O’Connell is impeccably cocky as the whorish author. His clean-cut, ambitious Douglas is gunning for The New Yorker. But this only leads Leonard to sharply sum up then dismantle that magazine’s short stories. You can almost hear Rebeck (“Mauritius,” “The Understudy”) chuckling to herself when she wrote that scene.
As for Kate, the rich girl responsible for the waste of words — and in whose sprawling apartment the meetings take place — she’s lucky enough to be in the hands of the incomparable Lily Rabe. A Tony nominee for “The Merchant of Venice,” Rabe modulates her raspy pipes to fantastic effect, whether Kate attacks Kerouac’s machismo or tries hiding her attraction to her old friend and fellow workshopper Martin (the excellent, deceivingly affable Hamish Linklater).
Rebeck’s acidic dialogue often has a pingpong, sitcom-y quality — which isn’t a bad thing, especially considering that this would be a very good sitcom.
Accused of having a crush on Izzy (the slinky Hettienne Park), yet another writer, Martin demurs, “She’s a twit!”
“Yeah, guys hate that,” Kate tartly replies. “It sucks that she’s gorgeous, too.”
These exchanges distract you from the play’s implausible elements — here, an entire novel is deemed fascinating after 40 seconds of reading. The characters also follow a predictable arc.
Leonard may or may not make his students better writers, but he reveals them to themselves. The so-called twit turns out to be an ace player of the publishing game. Tagged as a prudish feminist early on, Kate dives into the sexy, morally ambiguous waters she was so quick to decry. And the high-minded Martin, appalled by his mentor’s rudeness, may well be a Leonard in training.
As for our star of contemporary letters, his prickly exterior inevitably hides deep-seated anxieties while his tough approach yields positive results — he can line-edit and give life lessons!
Yet you can overlook the formulaic plotting because the witty Rebeck hits plenty of bull’s-eyes, most notably when poking fun at literary Manhattan’s cutthroat world. And with actors of this caliber delivering the goods, it’s easy to just sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.
Maybe you can’t judge a book by its cover, but apparently you can come up with a spot-on appraisal just by eyeballing a couple of sentences. That, anyway, is the impression left by “Seminar,” the shiny, facile new comedy by Theresa Rebeck, which stars Alan Rickman as the posturing celebrity teacher of a writing workshop.
Time and again in this play, which opened on Sunday night at the Golden Theater, people pick up manuscripts that they’ve never seen before and, before you can say Evelyn Wood, arrive at definitive pronouncements on the contents therein. At first I thought these rushes to judgment were satiric, comments on a culture of short attention spans and instant opinions.
And it is kind of funny when the magisterial Leonard, Mr. Rickman’s character, dismisses a short story that was six years in the making after reading only to the first semicolon. It is also a pleasure to hear Mr. Rickman pronounce “semicolon” with a pinching nasality that turns a punctuation mark into a symptom of terminal constipation.
But it turns out that the characters in “Seminar,” even the seemingly burnt-out Leonard, are religiously committed to the sacred, endangered art of the written word. And if they seem a tad overhasty in reacting to the works of others, it is only for reasons of dramatic expediency. Ms. Rebeck and the agile director Sam Gold are well aware of the market value on Broadway these days of hustling a comedy on and off the stage in a breezy hundred minutes that needn’t pause for intermission.
The creation of art is notoriously difficult to depict on stage (as in film), so leeway must be allowed those who would evoke this slow and tortuous process in a brief, digestible narrative. But “Seminar” seems to be almost nothing but shortcuts, and that includes the ways it defines and manipulates its characters. Full of efficiently mapped reversals and revelations, the play feels as if it were written according to some literary equivalent of a mileage-saving GPS device.
Ms. Rebeck, whose “Mauritius” was seen on Broadway four years ago, is a canny craftswoman with a sensibility poised somewhere between that of Yasmina Reza (queen of the quick, smart comedy) and Neil Simon (the longest-reigning king of the New York-style one-liner). Brightly acted by an ensemble that includes Hamish Linklater, Lily Rabe, Jerry O’Connell and Hettienne Park, “Seminar” keeps the laughs marching forward like a series of well-drilled military troops, and it never jams up or sags.
But it can’t sustain more than one thought or emotion or effect at the same time. This is a problem when you’re portraying those hopelessly ambivalent folk called artists, and you’re trying to parody and celebrate your subject at the same time.
For the play’s first two-thirds, it looks as if parody is going to be the dominant if not exclusive note. As “Seminar” opens, four youngish writers are gathered in an Upper West Side apartment (designed with sociological savvy by David Zinn), waiting for Leonard, a Gordon Lish-like fiction guru for whose counsel they have each paid $5,000 dollars. There’s the Bennington-educated, defensively prickly Kate (Ms. Rabe), whose family owns the apartment; the well-connected, preppyish Douglas (Mr. O’Connell); the klutzy, intense Martin (Mr. Linklater) and the lubricious, opportunistic Izzy (Ms. Park).
They are a fractious lot even before Leonard arrives, swapping barbs about one another’s pretensions. And each of course is pretentious in his or her own preordained way. The play begins with Douglas, the nephew of a famous playwright, rambling on about “the exteriority and the interiority” of a writers’ colony where he has spent time, and unctuously dropping terms like “postmodernism” and “magic realism.”
But that’s nothing compared to the verbal flatulence that fills the air once Leonard arrives, trailing weary contempt and sexual charisma. A once celebrated novelist, Leonard is now best known as an exacting editor, teacher and grandstanding chronicler of life in danger zones in third-world countries (Moldova, Rwanda, Somalia), where he stares down “the most terrifying nihilism this planet has to offer.”
Leonard reserves his most annihilating eloquence for shredding the egos of his students. (Kate’s offering is kissed off as “a soul-sucking waste of words.”) And he demands that they ask tough questions of themselves like, “Am I creating a living, breathing cosmos with language, or am I just scratching at the wall of a cave?”
I don’t know about you, but to me this sounds like phony phoniness. I’ve met a fair number of self-aggrandizing literary types (and yes, I’ve looked in the mirror), but they usually spin a more convincing, and less generic, line of blarney than this.
Mr. Rickman — a first-rate British stage actor known to mass audiences as that ultimate condescending educator Severus Snape in the “Harry Potter” movies — is a virtuoso of disdain. And the audience at the performance I attended all but squealed at each insulting crack of Leonard’s critical whip. But even Mr. Rickman, at least until near the end, has trouble making it seem that his character is anything more than a highly varnished papier-mâché figure.
“Seminar” makes astute use of topical and intellectual references, which are usually well known enough to make middlebrow audiences feel highbrow. (Leonard’s withering summing up of “the detached tone of perplexed intelligence” of fiction in The New Yorker got big laughs when I saw the show.) And it provides some familiar sitcomish shtick as comfortable padding. (When Kate is depressed, she gorges on potato chips and ice cream straight from the container, just like Valerie Harper’s Rhoda used to do.)
Mr. O’Connell and Ms. Park don’t overplay the inherent cartoonishness of the patrician Douglas and the sexpot Izzy (though I’m not sure either is ideally cast). And Ms. Rabe (a wonderful Portia in “The Merchant of Venice” on Broadway) and Mr. Linklater give real comic substance to skeletal parts.
Finally there comes a turning point, about an hour and 15 minutes into the show, when Mr. Rickman is allowed to embody something more than brisk intellectual sadism. Handed a really good piece of writing by one of his students, Leonard responds with a quietly potent mix of antagonism, humility, fear and something like joy.
Of course this mélange of feelings, magnificently orchestrated by Mr. Rickman, is arrived at after Leonard has only glanced at the first couple of pages of a vast manuscript. But for the first time I felt an authentic rush of pleasure and the exhilaration of being reminded that in theater, art comes less from landing lines than in finding what lies between them.
There are two bold and highly improbable things about "Seminar." First, the serious comedy by Theresa Rebeck is the rare new American play to arrive on star-driven Broadway with no bigger name than the splendid, but hardly mass-marketable, Alan Rickman and without the cushion of prior success in London or the nonprofit theaters.
This is healthy, even inspirational. Equally bold, but more distressingly improbable, is the play itself -- a slim, 100-minute pseudo-serious piece about the twists and turns of nasty creative mentoring.
The cast -- with Rickman as teacher and four gifted young actors as students in a private fiction workshop -- is breezy and bright. Everyone finds nonstop nuance and sexual charge in director Sam Gold's fast-talking, good-looking production. It works best, alas, if we don't notice how little of this power play adds up.
Still, what a pleasure to observe Rickman as he creates another variation on the seductions of malice. Long before his Severus Snape evolved from Harry Potter's professor of Potions to teaching Defense Against the Dark Arts, Rickman has been a sardonic master of magisterial theatrical magic and thin-skinned vulnerability.
Here he wears the rumpled persona of a tyrannical star novelist, a bully who brags about his knowledge of world suffering but who, we are meant to believe, can identify good and bad writing by glancing at a first paragraph.
We're also expected to believe that these four would-be authors would pay him $5,000 apiece for 10 weekly sessions, without anyone having an outside job. The appealing Lily Rabe plays a rich, nerdy beauty who seems far too smart to have spent the past six years rewriting the same short story. It is also hard to believe that she lives alone -- without threat these days from the city's rent guidelines board -- in her family's Upper West Side rent-controlled palace.
Hamish Linklater is endearingly intense as a secretive young writer. Hettienne Park makes an edgy sexpot who, for some reason, thinks fame would mean being in New York magazine, while Jerry O'Connell deftly juggles the glib vanity of the most experienced student.
Rebeck, the prolific playwright with major credits in quality TV drama, is also the creator of "Smash," NBC's hotly-anticipated -- at least among us theater geeks -- backstage series about a Broadway musical. In "Seminar," she can make these ambitious characters enjoyable, but can't make them matter.
In the first scene of Theresa Rebeck's new comedy, Seminar (* * * out of four), we're introduced to a group of aspiring young writers who represent a compendium of clichés.
Kate is a wry feminist from a wealthy family, living in a rent-controlled (by her parents) luxury apartment. Martin is her high school friend, less privileged and more dour, with a glaring chip on his shoulder. Douglas has enjoyed perks similar to Kate's and oozes a glib confidence. Izzy is Kate's foil, an up-by-her-bootstraps hottie who wields her sensuality with no apologies.
The four have been brought together, in Kate's vast bachelorette pad, by a chance to study with Leonard, a revered author and editor whose teaching methods suggest a sadistic military commander with an unexpectedly fluid vocabulary.
Characters turn out to be different than they appear on the surface, though in predictable ways. Yet Seminar, which opened Sunday at Broadway's Golden Theatre, is consistently clever and entertaining — and, under Sam Gold's briskly intelligent direction, a fine showcase for extraordinary actors.
They include the formidable Alan Rickman as Leonard, who returned to the role Friday night after an "acute respiratory infection" led to the cancellation of Thursday's preview (and the first missed performance of his career). If Rickman was feeling under the weather, it registered as part of Leonard's emotional malaise. Perhaps the most banal figure in Rebeck's play — a brilliant roué whose brutish behavior toward others masks his own regrets — this literary lion nonetheless has some delicious lines, and the actor serves them with robust elegance while suggesting a wounded humanity that transcends stereotype.
Rickman has a superb sparring partner in Hamish Linklater, whose Martin comes closest to his tutor in both ability and contentiousness. It's obvious from the start that Leonard will eventually see something of himself in this nerdy, contrary young man. But Linklater ensures that Martin is also his own person — tender beneath his hard shell, funny and heartbreakingly real.
Those qualities also apply to Lily Rabe's Kate, a Bennington alum who responds to Leonard's first shot of venom by stuffing her face with ice cream and chips. Rabe's most recent triumph was her luminous Portia in last season's revival of The Merchant of Venice; here, she approaches what is in essence a smartly written sitcom character with reserves of wit, insight and exuberance that few actresses twice her age could summon.
Jerry O'Connell is a hilarious Douglas, managing just the right willful cluelessness, while Hettienne Park captures Izzy's lack of self-consciousness and matter-of-fact sass without overplaying her carnality.
Thanks to these performances, Seminar proves an enriching study.
Teaching the young proves a treacherous business for both tutor and students in "Seminar," Theresa Rebeck's dark comedy about a literary lion and the young writers he eats for breakfast at his private seminars. Alan Rickman is heaven-sent as the sexy, sneering, snarling literary legend who condescends to tutor four aspiring novelists who have paid through the nose for the privilege of being abused. But these clever youngsters know how to play this intellectual contact sport, and even though everyone stops short of drawing blood, the civilized games they play are enormously entertaining.
It's only natural for an audience to hold its collective breath in anticipation of Rickman's star entrance as Leonard, the once celebrated author who has been reduced to giving private tutorials to novice authors at $5,000 a head. But hotshot helmer Sam Gold ("August: Osage County") has cast such bright young things in this sparkling production that the waiting time holds its own pleasures.
The four would-be novelists who have signed up for these weekly seminars are familiar characters without being predictable types. Rebeck (the creative juice behind NBC's "Smash") has an ear for self-defining idiomatic dialogue, so no one sounds like anyone else, either.
Douglas (a terrific Broadway debut by well-known entity Jerry O'Connell) is the swaggering egotist who trashes famous novelists like Jack Kerouac while bragging on his own creative genius ("It's not so much post-modern, really, as magical realism") and playing politics.
Martin (another eye-catching Broadway debut by Hamish Linklater) is the smartest kid in the room and probably the most talented, too. But nobody knows for sure how good or bad his writing is, because he's too self-conscious (and too scared) to read his work before the group.
Izzy (yet another wonderful Main Stem debut by Hettienne Park) is fun, because she's such a colorful creature (especially in costumer David Zinn's exotic plumage) that it's easy to underestimate her intelligence and talent.
Best of all, there's Kate, a Bennington girl who's an endearing mass of contradictions -- and cheerfully aware of them all in Lily Rabe's magnetic performance. Kate is the privileged tenant of the spacious rent-stabilized apartment on the Upper West Side where the group meets for Leonard's weekly seminars. (A place worthy of lust, in David Zinn's streamlined modern design.) Kate is so good-natured (or is it self-effacing?) that she lets Martin and Izzy shack up at her place, even though she's got a crush on Martin herself.
When Leonard (Rickman), finally comes down from the mountaintop to blind mere mortals with his brilliance, poor Kate becomes his first victim. Pouncing on the first line of her story, he dismisses Kate's alter-ego narrator as "an over-educated, completely inexperienced, sexually inadequate girl who has rich parents who give her everything and who has nothing to say."
Leonard's savage critiques are redeemed by his wit, and by the passionate regard for good writing that prompts his cruelty. And when he finally reads something that shows genuine talent, he's generous with his praise.
The problem here is that the audience is never made privy to any actual work produced by Leonard's students, which makes his clever pronouncements sound facile and his sage insights seem shallow. The one-sidedness of these blind literary discussions also deprives the other characters from making genuine contributions of their own.
But if Rebeck isn't really interested in a serious literary exchange between a wise old statesmen and his promising apprentices, she's entirely committed to exploring the teacher-pupil and pupil-pupil sexual dynamics of private educational pods like this one. Although the young writers claim to be shocked by Leonard's unethical behavior, they all hurl themselves into these mating dances with more enthusiasm than any of them have shown about writing the great American novel.