Wednesday, November 09, 2011


Is it fair to have high expectations of a preview? Medium expectations? Any expectations? What if the preview ticket is full priced? Discounted?

Previews live in a gray area, particularly in the era of blogging, when many of us review at least some shows that we pay for ourselves. The area is even grayer when it is an early preview.

(When we receive press tickets, the situation is clear: we go to late previews, when the shows are deemed ready to critique, and we don't post our reviews until the official opening.)

Theresa Rebeck's Seminar (directed by Sam Gold) is set to open in 11 days. It feels early to write about it, but tickets are being sold, and I did pay for one. Also, the show seems to be in good shape, with polished performances. And the negatives are in the sinews of the play, rather than being tweakable over time. For these reasons, I have made the decision to write this review and post it now.

So, here's the thing: I didn't believe a single character, situation, interaction, or conflict in this show.

Seminar is the story of, yes, a seminar. Four young writers--two women, two men--pay a famous writer/editor (Alan Rickman) $5,000 each to teach ten classes in the home of one of the writers. Anyone who has ever seen a show or movie or TV show depicting a writing class--or who is aware of Rickman as an actor--knows that the teacher will be snarky, insulting, and belittling and claim it is for the students' own good. That some of the students will be better writers than others, that at least one will only care about art, that at least one will very much care about commerce, that sexual pairings will occur, and that a secret or two will be revealed are all also predictable.

And that's okay. Plays don't have to be startling or ground-breaking to be interesting. The playwright can show us why this group of students is interesting, why this grumpy teacher is compelling, why these two people do or don't get together, and so on.

But Rebeck doesn't. Instead, she gives us people, with random arrays of attributes, whose behavior is neither consistent nor convincing. Take Lily Rabe's character, Kate, a Bennington graduate with an enviable rent-controlled apartment. [Spoilers follow.] She's a feminist who lets repeated, egregiously sexist use of the word pussy go unremarked. She's foolishly attached to a story she has been working on for six years, yet suddenly can write a whole book in a couple of weeks. She hates the teacher yet sleeps with him, but not because of the sort of love-hate attraction that does occur in real life. Instead, it's a shock effect that doesn't work.

Or take Izzy (Hettienne Park), who seems to exist to provide a contrast to Kate. She seduces the teacher and one of the students, and in some confusing chronology seems to be sleeping with them virtually at the same time. Writing doesn't seem that important to her--certainly not $5,000 important.

Rickman's character Leonard is set up as a rat, but we find out later that he has done nice things for some of the students. Rather than this adding a level of complexity to his character, it elicits a "huh?"  For example, early in the play Leonard insults an artistically inclined writer by telling him he should be writing for Hollywood. Late in the play, we're supposed to perceive Leonard's introducing that writer to a Hollywood bigwig as a mitzvah.

Another annoying fault of Seminar is that the characters' writing is evaluated without having been read. Leonard eviscerates one story based on the first line and is greatly impressed with two others based on the first couple of pages. Later, Martin (Hamish Linklater), the student who is least impressed with Leonard, becomes convinced that Leonard has written a great book based on, yes, the first couple of pages.

The direction is smooth. The acting is fine. Rickman nails his big speech. But the play just isn't good.

(tdf ticket, third row, rear mezz)


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