Dallas — The cost of creativity—at least for serious fiction writers—is not just the big bucks, but also the battered egos in Theresa Rebeck's dark comedy Seminar, directed with sharp scene delineations and dramatic pacing by Jac Alder at Theatre Three. Unfolding like a video book, Rebeck’s 90-minute play has nine scenes (like circles of Hell) cleverly heralded by video screens flashing “sex” or “fame” or other driving forces, each mounted high on Edward Gordon Craig’s effective and stylized set that allows his actors plenty of romping room in this arena space.
Four ardently ambitious young New York writers gather in a spacious rent-controlled apartment with a view of the Hudson. Each has paid $5,000 for a private writing seminar with the once red-hot novelist Leonard, who now earns his living as an editor and international reporter specializing in the brutal chaos of third world revolutions. Even before the teacher arrives, they're all arguing in hyper lit-crit babble about postmodernism falling on hard times, the disaster of e-books and some grad school BS about the "intersection of interiority and exteriority." When he does arrive, Leonard turns their dreams of publishing a brilliant bestseller into a nightmare of disdainful dismissal or a humiliating assessment of their work as hollow.
Mark Fickert’s Leonard is a big man with a bigger ego, grizzled and jaded with a seen-it-all amusement in his eyes. He exudes a careless, randy masculinity, and lives off stories about the wretched of Somali. He can apparently smell the overworked or inauthentic story, since he delivers his judgments after barely reading the first paragraph. Enjoying his power over struggling writers, he approaches his job like a hired gun brought in to take down anything smacking of a Jane Austen update, or an anxious, open-ended piece deliberately crafted to entice a New Yorker story editor.
Leonard clearly enjoys stirring up rivalries and repressed jealousy, sexual and literary, in his clients, who speak in polite inanities when commenting on each other’s work. He pushes for a gut response: “Writers in their natural state are about as civilized as feral cats,” he tells them—and rips into their work by way of demonstration.
Leonard is especially hostile to Kate (an exquisitely angular and tautly determined Janielle Kastner), a Bennington grad whose family owns the Upper West Side apartment. Glancing over a piece she’s worked on for six years, Leonard says her narrator is an “over-educated rich girl,” and later recalls her style as “a soul-sucking way with words.” Gulp. Tough-girl Kate mans up, but later stuffs on ice cream and cookie dough. Pissed and crushed, she says angrily, “If I want somebody to tell me I’m wasting my time, I can talk to my mother.” Rebeck writes irresistible zingers, and Kastner delivers them with perfect comic irony. Still, before it’s all done, clever Kate delivers some wonderfully theatrical tricks—in script and in the flesh.
Douglas (a handsome, eager-to-please Jeff Burleson), whose family name smacks of old wealth and book publishing, has honed his talent in artist retreats, fed by NEA grants. Leonard tells him his writing is hollow, “skillful in a whorish way,” and recommends he give up literary pretensions and “go to Hollywood and make a shitload of money.” Slap me again; I love it, these guys seem to say.
Izzy (a soft-mouthed and hard-eyed Jenna Anderson) is the smiling sexpot savvy enough to produce something overnight she knows will work. Sure enough, Leonard declares, “there’s a real sexual edge to this language,” as he sidles up to the purring Izzy. This old feral cat can clearly still fire up some heat—and stoke a blast of envy.
Leonard’s meetings with his group occur over several weeks, convening when he’s in town long enough to shake everybody up and realign couplings. Lust and ambition are dripping down the walls, and real feelings are numbed by disillusion or charged by a sudden green light. Only Martin (a sweet-faced and hopelessly sincere Clay Wheeler) holds back his work from the master trasher. Taunted as a “pussy” and a coward, he feels betrayed by everyone around him.
Pressed by gossip of his past, and telling the group what they can expect in the twilight of literary celebrity, Fickert has a masterful scene evoking the descent from hot writer, to bored writing professor taking solace in sex with juicy sophomores, to exhausted editor, to tough-skinned teacher of private writing seminars. He exited to spontaneous applause on opening night.
Then late in the play, when sexual alliances have shifted once more, Mark at last gathers the courage to offer up his “soul on paper” to Leonard, whose burned-out face is ignited by a fresh light as he looks over Martin’s work. The final scene surprises comically, and has a shockingly hopeful glow. Have the writers gained a valuable truth about their place in the real world of publishing from their teacher? Would Martin sell his soul to the devil himself to see his passionate work rewarded at last? Do you want tickets to this tight, bright show?
Oh, hell yes.