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A play about the writing life

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The cast of Seminar is a tight ensemble DYLAN HEWLETT PHOTO
The cast of Seminar is a tight ensemble DYLAN HEWLETT PHOTO

Initially, Seminar may seem yet another story about the effect a tough, arrogant yet potentially enlightening teacher has on his students. It is that. However, centrally, this smart comedy crafted by an astute writer, is about the writing life.

Pulitzer Prize nominee, playwright, author and screenwriter, Theresa Rebeck offers a harsh yet affectionately comedic rendering of young literary aspirants intent on success. In just 90 minutes Rebeck takes audiences on a wild ride with five noteworthy individuals who get caught in a gamut of entanglements due to their common passion for the written word. She then brings everyone home chuckling about what he/she has learned on the trip. Amazingly, the journey mostly takes place in the living room of one of the seminar participants.

The first scene begins mid conversation. Izzy (Grace Lynn Kung), Martin (Nathan Howe), Douglas (Ryan James Miller) and Kate (Andrea Houssin), four aspiring 20-something writers, are verbally strutting and sparring while waiting for Leonard (Tom McCamus), the famous novelist whom they’ve each paid $5,000 for a 10-week master class. All the young writers have demonstrated some talent. Now, each is looking to Leonard to push them toward success though each apprentice spells the S word differently.

Izzy is a highly confident and pragmatic young woman who is sexually available for fun or benefit. She is more interested in fame than profundity. Douglas, an Ivy Leaguer with schlep, is a nice guy who can be tiresome and pompous. Martin, the poorest of the bunch, is also the most protective of his work. For him writing is close to a calling. Yet, he isn’t ready to expose his work to a reader. A well-heeled Bennington grad, Kate is bright and a self-proclaimed feminist, who is mired in the past vis à vis her family and her writing. She wants to be validated and liked. The seminar is being held at her posh Upper West side Manhattan apartment.

Each of the young actors offers a solid and lively performance. Together, they are a tight ensemble.

When Leonard arrives, the energy in the room changes. He is a man with large appetites and no hesitancy about satisfying them. His non-altruistic mission is to blast open his students’ notions about powerful writing and literary accomplishment. His methods are brutal. Without compunction he spews brilliant but scathing remarks about the novices’ work and cutting assessments of their characters. Even his praise raises the fear of a price to pay. After a couple of sessions with the unrelenting Leonard, the students are about ready to jump ship. But they don’t. Instead, while Leonard is away on a foreign assignment, they go madly off in diverse directions.

McCamus’ Leonard wonderfully elicits fear and loathing yet doesn’t alienate the audience. In control of Leonard’s enormous personality, McCamus capably reveals the many aspects of this complex character. As the play progresses McCamus adds another piece to the Leonard puzzle. He won’t submit to defeat, he is self-undermining, he is insightful, he is gripped by narcissism and at bottom, like his students, he is passionate about writing.

My guess is that Rebeck is too. In between the lines of a satisfying story, she laughingly warns us about the literary life. Her tips aren’t astounding but worth reviewing. A writer’s life is hard, the pay is poor, there is no guarantee of success and even if you gain wide reputation it often is short-lived.

Why do it?  Go see Seminar. 


Mirvish Productions presents Seminar by Theresa Rebeck, directed by Stewart Arnott. Running at Panasonic Theatre until Dec.6

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