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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
While not quite as original as Mauritius , the combination family drama and con game that was the first Rebeck play to premiere on Broadway, Seminar again has enough assets to make it easy to suspend disbelief about certain plot developments. It has all the Rebeckian hallmarks: A plot that lends itself to juicy confrontations, zippy cultural references (literary retreats and celebrities, e-books, etc) that manage to transcend frivolity — though Leonard (Alan Rickman), this dark comedy's vitriolic centerpiece, would be quick to put down the script's being so heavily punctuated with laugh delivering zingers as the stuff of a TV comedy show or an insubstantial chicklit page turner.
As Leonard turns what starts as another of his brutal assaults on one of his student's potential as a writer into a frank self-assessment without missing a beat, so Rebeck adeptly plunges her literary spin on Terrence McNally's operatic Master Class into more discussable territory. McNally's play, which also premiered at the Golden Theater, has been frequently revived, which is likely to the the case for Seminar. Such future productions will face comparisons to Alan Rickman's Leonard. What this actor can do with a raised eyebrow, an icy glance, an almost imperceptible chuckle, is non-verbal acting at its most watchable. Not that Rickman fails to deliver the words Rebeck has written for him with dash and distinction. Considering that a severe viral infection forced the actor who's never missed a show to agree to a cancellation the night before I attended, Rickman's performance, which includes an emotion draining 700+ word monologue, was as heroic it was formidable.
While Rickman is the undeniable magnet, Seminar also boasts a fine group of actors to play the four aspiring literary fiction writers gathered for their high-priced private classes with the distinguished novelist who, though no longer publishing ficton, has become renowned as a remarkably effective if unorthodox editor-teacher and world-traveling journalist. The students' word play bounces back and forth like a ping pong game, their interactions and reactions to Rickman's infuriating and ego-humbling approach to teaching include shifting sexual alliances as well as ice cream and cookie batter eating binges.
When the pale blue curtain — a blank slate except for a bottom border of jumbled letters jumble of letters from which you can pick an occasional word like love, power, less— rises, Douglas (Jerry O'Connell) is animatedly showing off his lit-hipness to the other students: Kate (Lily Rabe), Martin (Hamish Linklater and Izzy (Hettienne Park).
The classroom is actually the living room of Kate's 9-room rent-controlled apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side, which sets off an animated discussion sure to amuse New Yorkers paying top dollar for far less luxurous pads — an admiring " Eight hundred a month. That--is fabulous" from Douglas; an outraged "It’s socialism for the rich!" from Martin. Light as the opening scene is, it establishes the foursome's personalities: Kate, the privileged Bennington graduate; Martin as the crowd pleasing, most likely to succeed of the group; Martin, the most seriously committed to literature; Izzy, the sexpot who's more fame and fun than high art oriented.
Once Leonard arrives for the first meeting of the 12-sesson seminar the scenes alternate between his acerbic put-downs of each student and their actions and reactions between sessions. Kate is the first up and most sharply attacked victim with a story she's been working on for six years, "a sardonic commentary on Jane Austen's first sentence in Pride and Prejudice." Her binge eating to sublimate the pain inflicted by Leonard is amusing though among the play's more TV-ish elements. Though Kate has agreed to let Martin, a buddy dating back to high school, stay in her apartment since the $5000 seminar fee has put him at risk of homelessness, Martin's sympathies are diverted by Izzy during Leonard's two-week hiatus on an assignment in Somalia.
Sam Gold orchestrates the shifts between almost farcical comedy to manipulative survival tactics and strategies for coping with injured psyches with flair and intelligence. He's clearly a director who knows how to seamlessly move between quiet and emotional bombshell scenes. Seminar is particularly good at showcasing his ability to make long silences work —not so much Pinteresque pauses as just quiet, non-talking moments. His positioning of the actors is also noteworthy, as when the students are seated as Leonard moves around — their body language making it appear that the verbal blows he delivers are physical assaults to be dodged.
When Leonard and Martin, the one truly talented student, finally clash, David Zinn in a coup-de-staging has the set of Kate's apartment rise to take us to Leonard's apartment without the usual scenery changing intermission. Unlike the brightly lit modern apartment where most of the action unfolds, Leonard's place resembles one of those dark second hand book shops that used to line 4th Avenue below 14th Street.
Rickman, Linklater and Rabe are the only actors you'll encounter in that last and most serious scene. Rebeck uses that finale rather too neatly to dot the i's and cross the t's by summing up how Leonard's seminar affects each student's career trajectory. However, she does leave it up to the audience to decide just how budding writers can or should be nurtured, and whether Leonard's style of teaching is a literary variation of tough love or psychic abuse?
In this bottom line, staff trimming age where newspapers, magazines and book publishers have cut copy editing jobs to the bone, writers wanting the kind of meticulous line-by-line attention of a Maxwell Perkins —- or a Leonard—- may well have to pay for it out of their own pockets. No wonder e-book self-publishing is thriving.
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