Talk is anything but cheap in Seminar, Theresa Rebeck’s new play currently in performances at the Golden Theater. Starring Alan Rickman as an acid-tongued literary professor teaching a class of aspiring novelists, Seminar explores the power of words – both spoken in haste and written with thought and care. With the marvelously malevolent Rickman and a solid supporting ensemble, Seminar is a surprisingly funny and moving show.
Four young writers have each paid $5,000 to attend a fiction seminar led by the once-famous writer Leonard. Kate, who attended college at Bennington, is a well-off, upper middle class woman. Douglas is the nephew of a famous writer and apparently very well-connected in the literary world. Martin is clumsy, both physically and emotionally and the bluntly sexual Izzy is also bluntly opportunistic. We are introduced to the quartet as they discuss the difficulty of navigating the professional literary world while they attempt to create their own work.
When Leonard arrives and the class begins, the words truly begin to fly. Formerly a novelist, Leonard is now an editor who frequently writes magazine articles on war-torn lands. He speaks at length about his own experiences before glancing at any of the work by the students. Apparently able to judge a manuscript six years in the making by reading only to the semicolon (a word he pronounces with deliciously disdainful scorn), Leonard promptly pronounces Kate’s story “a soul-sucking waste of words” – among other things. His relationship with each of the students, as well as their relationships with each other, drive the external conflict of the play, but it is the internal conflicts that truly propel the plot of the show forward, depicted by this company of skillful, talented actors.
Lily Rabe, who was outstanding as Portia in last season’s The Merchant of Venice, plays Kate, gives depth and complexity to a character who, on paper, might seem dull and stereotypical. Preppy, pretty and ambitious, Kate is the host of the seminar meetings and the first to present her work to Leonard. She is crushed when he harshly criticizes her work but refuses to go down without a fight. To some, Kate may appear to be a stereotype; (the running gag of binging on junk food when she is upset gets old quickly) but Rabe’s heartfelt performance gives much more to the character. Her carefully hidden attraction to Martin, an old friend from high school, and her heartbreak when Martin begins a relationship with another woman, are two of the more moving aspects of such an academic show.
As Martin, Hamish Linklater creates a compelling and conflicted man. Seemingly ambitious but paralyzed by fear, Martin is at a standstill when we meet him. He is about to be evicted from his apartment because he spent all of his rent money to take Leonard’s course but he refuses to present any work to the teacher or his classmates. He admires one of his classmates from afar but refuses to tell her how he feels. It is when he learns a secret about Leonard’s past that he becomes bold; whether that is to his aid or detriment is yet to be determined.
Making is Broadway debut as Douglas, Jerry O’Connell gives a solid, entertaining performance. Snobbish and pretentious, he is somehow still likeable. And as the vivacious, beautiful Izzy, Hettienne Park is bluntly sexual and talented. Both characters begin to feel disposable as the play progresses, but O’Connell and Park’s dedication to the characters elevates them above what they might have been.
But this is Rickman’s show, as anyone who has seen the poster of him looking outward ominously might know. Known worldwide for his role as the contemptuous Professor Snape in the Harry Potter franchise, Rickman is clearly the ideal choice for playing an embittered academic. Rickman’s ability to pronounce a single word with such scorn almost stops the show numerous times, and his monologue on the life of a writer (inspired by reading a truly good piece of writing by one of his students) does for a moment. Rickman manages to depict the hope, ambition, fear, anger, sadness and loss after a failed career, in one speech. In the hands of a less-skilled actor, the script might be delivered loudly, bordering on hysteria, filled with shouting and screaming. But Rickman speaks quietly and calmly, even matter-of-factly at times, giving the words even more power than they already held.
The creation of art is a difficult thing to explain, let alone depict in a brisk 100-minute script. Rebeck moves the plot along quickly, efficiently packing lines with zingy one-liners exchanged between the overly articulate characters. But Seminar, which explores the darker side of the mentor relationship, and the potential danger of failed artists living vicariously through aspiring young ones, goes beyond the story of the creation and explores the life after the creation – which clearly can be a frightening thing, indeed.