Ray Bradbury said in his Zen in the Art of Writing that we must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy us. But the quote is the sentiment of a man for whom writing came easy – or at least who enjoyed a modicum of success.
In Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar, it’s writing itself that’s doing the destroying.
Rebeck’s writers aren’t intoxicated by their lust for words. Instead, we get the sense that her characters spend their evenings agonizing over the blink…blink…blink of their laptop’s cursor and the vast emptiness that is the blank Word document. For them, writing isn’t a decadent indulgence but rather a duty to uphold, a labor of self-loathing that brings neither joy nor peace.
In a word: these guys make it look hard – and it’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
Seminar is a comedic romp set in the upscale, New York City apartment of Kate (Katie deBuys), a late-twenties/early thirties writer living on her parents’ dole as she attempts to make a career of her craft. Kate’s in good company as friends and writer-colleagues Douglas (Tom Story), Martin (Alexander Strain) and Izzy (Laura Harris) join her in her apartment for weekly writing seminars with their gruff but brilliant teacher Leonard (Marty Lodge).
The sessions with Leonard, however, are no Sunday book club. Leonard is cynical, bombastic, abusive and more than a little sexist, winning dubiously-deserved admiration from his pupils as he extols the virtues of “relevant” literature and regales them with stories of inspiration gained from his overseas adventures. Each week, the students – ravenous for praise but frequently disappointed – are invited (perhaps dared) to present a work to Leonard. What little encouragement he offers is awarded to the most attractive and flirtatious students, leaving reasonable question about his true intent.
Rebeck manages to cram quite a lot into a single room – and really, that’s just about all we get. Quarreling colleagues, struggling artists, and a complex love-quadrangle all unfold over 90 minutes in Kate’s living room.
And it’s really very funny.
Seminar delivers an aerial assault of humor that’s honest and straightforward. You see the punchlines hurtling down at you from above, but there’s nothing you can do to get out of the way. And you wouldn’t want to – Seminar is smart and the jokes are well timed.
Humor throughout is driven by Rebeck’s equally well-developed characters. Kate’s self-confidence is simply worn out, and it shows both in her writing and her doormat-like approach to relationships. Martin is tortured by the accomplishments of his colleagues, failing both professionally and financially but convinced he’s a writer that deserves to make it in the world.
Izzy is ambitious and free-spirited, but the playwright (thankfully) eschews the shame-laced undertones that often saddle a character who knows how to use her body and enjoys it. Likewise, Douglas is a well-connected rich kid, but he isn’t the oft-trodden prep-school slacker Rebeck might have developed. Instead, he’s daring and confident, proving that he has just enough talent to deserve being born on third base.
The cast is a talented bunch that brings Seminar to life. Marty Lodge looks the part of Leonard and skillfully straddles the archetype of the hippie stoner and the grizzled veteran as he cuttingly demoralizes his class. Alexander Strain plays a Martin that is both pathetic and sympathetic, and Laura Harris delivers a peppy and solid performance as Izzy. Katie deBuys has the inauspicious task of playing the straight-woman to the wayward crew, but pops and zings with humor as she gorges on pretzels and ice cream to buffer her false politeness. Tom Story captures the ridiculous intellectual puffery of Douglas well enough, but shines most as he embodies a subdued confidence that reflects a kid with a solid financial safety net swinging beneath him.
The play is at times purposefully verbose, a testament to the intellectual pomposity of its characters. The gag works, even if some members of the audience find themselves daydreaming as the men and women of Seminar debate, for example, the patriarchal implications of Jack Kerouac’s work.
Even writing that sentence I found myself distracted by a squirrel outside the window.
There are also moments when we’re asked to believe the characters can write, but without seeing any evidence. I would have liked to actually hear some of the students’ work, rather than a description of its greatness. The playwright’s Omnium Gatherum, after all, was nominated for a Pulitzer for this particular effort – surely a little more show and a little less tell was a possibility.
But Seminar is itself masterfully restrained, as it could have veered any number of horrific directions. It could have offered an embittered screed from the perspective of a writer who failed to build a career. It could have offered some insiders-only self-worship that just a small handful of writers in the audience could appreciate. It could have mocked the hyper-intellectualized culture of young writers, ridiculing the art and extolling artists everywhere to go get a real job already.
But it didn’t. Seminar instead is a beautiful “I feel your pain” vignette that is as reverential of good writing as it is lovingly disparaging of those who attempt the feat. Seminar’s characters are brilliant, yes, but they’re also wholly ridiculous. They’ve made permanent base-camp inside their own heads and there’s no hope of an extraction.
Still, the characters are likeable enough to keep the laughs coming whether you’re a writer or not. At its core, Seminar is a work about being young and desperate to succeed without compromising or selling out. Really, the word “writer” could have been replaced with “doctor,” “architect,” “lawyer” or any number of jobs and it would have rung just as true.
And that’s some writing on which I’m happy to stay good and drunk.
Seminar Produced by Theresa Rebeck . Directed by Jerry Whiddon . Featuring Katie deBuys, Laura C. Harris, Marty Lodge, Tom Story, and Alexander Strain . Scenic designer: James Kronzer . Costume designer: Ivania Stack . Lighting designer: Daniel MacLean Wagner . Sound designer: Eric Shimelonis . Props master: Kasey Hendricks . Dramaturg Lloyd Rose . Stage manager: Bekah Wachenfeld . Produced by Round House Theatre . Reviewed by Jon Boughtin.