Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Theatre Review: Seminar

Theresa Rebeck’s latest Broadway comedy, or It’s So Hard to Be an Artist

Hamish Linklater and Lily Rabe get flirty in Seminar.                   Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

There’s not much point in reviewing a show that opened months ago to the general acclaim of critics and audiences alike. But considering its obvious Tony Award-magneticism, attention must be paid (we’ll get to that alluded star-studded revival later, promise).

In her latest comedy-parody, the author of Mauritius and Spike Heels presents four aspiring writers who meet weekly in a swanky, rent-controlled UWS apartment to take writing classes — a seminar, if you will — from Leonard, an international literary figure. They’re your expected lot: the dirt-poor, overly insecure artist-genius (Hamish Linklater); the sassy sexpot (Hettienne Park); the patrician cooly coasting on nepotism (Jerry O’Connell) and the prickly feminist emotional-eater (Lily Rabe). And, of course, there’s the contemptuous, self-aggrandizing  teacher (Alan Rickman) whose so-called mentorship consists of weary disdain marked by lacerating whips of ego-shredding criticism.

The one (un)interesting aspect of seeing a show well into its run is what the actors do — or don’t, as the case may be. Do they get a little lazy? Bored? Are they coasting along on their already glowing, filed-away reviews? Or are they actively engaged with the material, maintaining that fiery, opening-night spark?

In Seminar, it’s a little of both. Under Sam Gold’s rapid-fire direction, Jerry O’Connell effectively plays the stuffy detachedness of his entitled Douglas, but Hettienne Park’s student-slut lacks any kind of real scrappiness (and seems rather miscast). It’s the super-energized Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater that shine the brightest, cleverly crafting layers of emotional complexity in what could have been otherwise the cartoonish clichés of their familiar characters. The much-anticipated Rickman is a slow-burn: his Snape-ian scorn is nicely mined in some of the juicier snarky moments and he slyly proffers glimmers of meager praise for his feedback-starved students, but the bit worse-for-the-ware sixty-six year-old Brit  is so cooly disdainful as to seem uninterested in not only their writing, but in the play itself. Perhaps it’s for the best at this point that in just a couple weeks, the cast (excepting Park and O’Connell) will be replaced with some fresh blood, including the likes of Jeff Goldblum as Leonard.

Though Rebeck’s work is produced consistently, she isn’t one of our most original voices. Her dialogue boasts occasional moments of cutting, insightful wit, but much of the time, so much droll cleverness feels a bit forced. In Seminar, the script is marked with implausibilities — apparently you can judge a writer’s work based on half of a sentence before a semi-colon — and clichés (see list of characters). There’s also the eye-rolling self-indulgence of the subject itself: Rebeck, a writer, pens a story about the vitalness of writers and the written word. Her pretentious characters wax poetic about language and the craft of writing, and then cry and complain about how hard it is to be a writer, aka an artist. The one accomplished writer of the lot, Rickman’s Leonard, has an entire monologue about writing being forced to set aside ideals and supplement  income — not to mention ego — by teaching, writing for television, etc. The play begins as parody but then shifts to a bafflingly earnest tone about  3/4 of the way through. Considering her current credit as head-writer on the NBC musical drama, SMASH, it’s never entirely clear if Rebeck is poking fun at too-serious writers or if she’s actually taking herself — and her vocation — too seriously.

Seminar
John Golden Theatre
252 West 45th Street
New York, NY 10036
Performances from October 27, 2011
Opening  November 20, 2011
Open-Ended Run

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This entry was posted on March 18, 2012 by in Broadway, Comedy, Reviews, Theatre, Theatre Reviews.

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