Center by Left Edge Theatre, playwright Theresa Rebeck—the mastermind behind such stage hits at The Scene and television’s Smash—deftly transports her patented hard-edge comedy style from the worlds of stage-and-screen to the land of the literarily engaged. By never showing us a writer in the act of writing, but rather showing us a quartet of authors in the act of defending and describing their work, Rebeck shows them at the vulnerable core of who they are.
And it’s a blast. Mostly.
If anyone could really determine a great novel or a lousy novel by just reading the first who pages, then maybe I should only be watching the first ten minutes of a play before rendering my own opinion as to its overall worth. That’s not possible, of course, and for a playwright as adept as Rebeck to take such lazy shortcuts, actually showing us people in the act of recognizing a literary work’s excellence by it’s first several paragraphs, is disappointing.
Thankfully, the value of ‘Seminar’ lies in its entirety, not in one or two false moments, and on the whole, ‘Seminar’ is outstanding.
“Don’t defend yourself,” intones Leonard, early in the play. Played by actor Ron Severdia with a mix of weary resignation, playful, grinning antagonism, and vicious, sociopathic bloodlust, Leonard is an esteemed author-turned-teacher-for-hire, and he doesn’t like it when a writer defends herself after he’s criticized her.
“If you’re defending yourself,” he tells a whole group of young writers he is in the middle of eviscerating, “then you’re not listening.”
Directed by Argo Thompson with a strong ear for the rapidly shifting rhythms of intellectual debate and literary double-speak—though with a conspicuous tendency to have his entire cast perform facing and rarely to each other—Seminar follows a bunch of would-be writers who pay a Leonard $5000 apiece to give them a private class, “critiquing” their writing—and everything else about them. Rose Roberts, as the Jane Austen-loving Kate—who rents the New York apartment where the classes take place—is at the top of her game, and as her variously talented classmates, Jacob de Heer, Devon McConnell, and Veronica Valencia give strong, appealing performances in a play in which every character has something great to do, alternately required to be torn apart, or to learn the fine art of tearing apart others. As Leonard gleefully pronounces, “Writers, in their natural state, are as civilized as feral cats.” This entertaining exploration of artistic egos under pressure is a bit over-cooked at times, but on the whole is as deliciously fierce, ferocious and funny as a pack of wild animals.
And like a wild animal, it doesn’t always behave itself.
“Seminar” runs Friday through Sunday through November 28, at Wells Fargo Center for the Performing Arts, presented by Left Edge Theatre. www.leftedgetheatre.com