You don’t have to be a writer to appreciate the fear and loathing in “Seminar” at Broadway’s Golden Theatre. Though it helps.
The play revolves around four writers, anxious to either start or resume their careers by seeking guidance from a master. They meet in a student’s apartment, where most of the action unfolds.
The writers and the world-weary teacher are characters we know. That does not make them cliches or one-dimensional. Rather, they are all quite fully realized, and none more so than Kate (Lily Rabe). By upper West Side standards, Kate is to the manor born; she inherited a rent-controlled apartment with Central Park views. Kate is smart, well-educated, beautiful and a very good friend.
This is a woman who reads the New York Times daily, isn’t afraid to stand up for herself and who understands there never was an option but to be a vocal feminist. Rabe, terrific in last season’s “Merchant of Venice,” again holds the stage quite naturally against an older, more intimidating actor. In the Shakespeare revival it was Al Pacino; here it is Alan Rickman (Professor Snape in the “Harry Potter” movies).
Rickman is well cast and does dismissive better than anyone. He’s annoyed, bored and restive. He beds his female students and is still trying to live down a decades-old plagiarism charge, yet there is a grain of optimism in him. When he starts reading someone’s work, even if he dislikes that person, he wants to find something worthy. And he does.
Among the writers in this group, only one, Douglas (Jerry O’Connell), enjoyed some success and has connections. He talks about the “interiority and exteriority” of writers’ colonies and is very busy trying to impress the women.
Of course he starts talking about Jack Kerouac, because young male writers find this topic an irresistible rite of passage. Completely full of himself, Douglas says, “Hopefully what I achieved is a little more intellectual than what Kerouac was going for.”
Besides the great Kate, the other woman in the class is Izzy (Hettienne Park), who has a more base and pragmatic approach to writing. Martin (Hamish Linklater, “The New Adventures of Old Christine”) is the sardonic, cynical purist. He does not want to show his work and is a starving artist who takes advantage of Kate’s generosity and apartment.
So the four meet and Leonard reads their work and either eviscerates them as he does with Kate, or find genius as he eventually does with Martin.
Kate presents him with a story she has worked on for six years. Leonard glances at the beginning and says, “If I can’t get past the first five words, how am I supposed to care about it?”
Leonard is sharp and unlikeable. He’s brutal in his criticism, but he matters because he has the air of truth about him, and writers are on a quest for it. Theresa Rebeck, the playwright, clearly knows this subject and has created an exquisite play.
Let’s face it, writing is not the most fascinating activity to watch anyone do. Whether people are among the few who still scribble on legal pads with pens or bang away on laptops, it’s nowhere near as exciting as watching grass grow. And watching writers talk about writing makes watching grass grow look positively thrilling in comparison.
Yet this play makes it work with its raw anger, jealousies, alliances and trysts. Ultimately we hope that Martin will become a success, based on talent, if not charm. Douglas may continue to ride his limited abilities and excellent connections; Izzy could fit well into Hollywood. Kate has a future, even if she will need to explain why she presented herself as a male, cross-dressing Cuban gang member.