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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review

"Donít defend yourself. If you defend yourself, youíre not listening"— Leonard
Jeff Goldblum, Jennifer Ikeda, Aya Cash
(Photo Credit: Craig Schwartz)
Seminar is a breezy middlebrow comedy about the professional and sexual entanglements of five highbrows. Itís a textbook example of prolific stage and TV writer Theresa Rebeck: sharp humor, trenchant ideas, and jolting plot twists that pass the time winningly without making an indelible mark on the heart, mind, or memory.

In a series of weekly meetings for young fiction writers, well-respected editor and teacher Leonard (Jeff Goldblum) offers categorical judgements of new work based on a quick read of its first page. It seems only fair to apply the same technique to the playís West Coast premiere.

Its opening moments present Daniel (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe), a young toff decked out in high-water salmon-colored pants pontificating on the sublime beauty of the grounds at Yadoo, an exclusive writing retreat. ďThe grounds are completely, like, it's this astonishingly sculpted landscape where everything seems to be sculpted out of trees and water so interiority and exteriority meet.Ē

Any audience member's fear of feeling inferior to this literary clique of characters is swept aside by one swell fop. Director Sam Gold makes sure we laugh at Daniel by giving him airline steward-style gestures for that final line.

Martin (Greg Keller), the other young man in this upscale Manhattan apartment, sidles away from the fog of fatuousness. We guess he's going to be our hero. He's dressed in slacker-wear for easy accessibility.

Before the sequence ends, Daniel intones "interiority and exteriority" twice more, making sure we know it was right to laugh at him and alerting us to what we assume is going to be one of Rebeckís major theme.

Sure enough, the rest of the play proves that Leonard's quick-fire method holds true. Most of the brief scenes (good for short attention spans) support the idea that balance is all.

Martin and his childhood friend Kate (Aya Cash) have the most promising sensibilities. But Leonard prods them to pursue their sexual and professional prospects. If not, their artistic well runs the risk of running dry.

Also, as the opening leans to the exterior, so goes the rest of the play. Jennifer Ikeda's Izzy soon exposes her breasts to show how far she's willing to go to sell her work. She demonstrates, however fetchingly, how the piece's interiority is only skin-deep.

On the whole, the Ahmanson production accentuates the external over the heartfelt. On Broadway, balance was more nearly achieved. (review). Nearly every member of the cast had a sharply defined persona distinguished by a contrast between their public and private selves. Lead Alan Rickman proffered his bruised prickly pear coating over an achingly romantic core. The other leads similarly displayed a yearning that, at key moments, convinced you something more than laughs was at stake.

The current cast is talented. Most though tend to play just one thing at a time and it's pretty exterior. The broader take, perhaps inspired by a desire to reach the back of the large house, diminishes the necessary belief that at least some of these characters carry a potential for brilliance.

Aya Cash is tiny with outsized gestures. Keller leans too much on his light, husky voice to convey distinctiveness. Still, you root for these bright, young things.

Jeff Goldblum, who replaced Rickman on Broadway, brings the greatest shift to the production. Heís maintained a four-decade career playing oddball intellectuals in films from Annie Hallto Independence Day and on such TV shows as Law and Order: Criminal Intent. His go-to characteristic is being momentarily distracted by an off-beat thought that takes a moment for him to receive and decipher.

This makes Leonard's initial criticisms untrustworthy. The students now bond in response, not just to his harshness but also his potential incompetence. He grows intriguingly more direct as his judgments become warmer. How Leonardís life has developed in response to a past event makes more sense in this production, even though the overall performance is less effective.

The larger theater also hurts the production's one coup de theatre relating to David Zinnís stage design. In a small space, we don't expect such things. Here, it plays more as a matter of course. His costume designs, which looked so spiffy on its original cast, look more schlubby on the new cast. Only the new form-fitting duds on the fit Goldblum match the urban chic of the original.

Written by Theresa Rebeck
Directed by Sam Gold

Cast: Jeff Goldblum (Leonard), Aya Cash (Kate), Greg Keller (Martin), Lucas Near-Verbrugghe (Daniel), Jennifer Ikeda (Izzy)
Stage and Costume Design by David Zinn
Lighting Design by Ben Stanton
Running Time: 100 minutes, with no intermission
Location: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. Los Angeles, CA 90012 213.628.2772
Runs Tuesday through Sunday until November 18th, 2012
Reviewed by Jon Magaril
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