|Andy Cahoon, Kim Richard, David Barker, Kerry McCue and Will Hightower|
For anyone who has ever written anything, getting honest feedback from a respected peer, editor or mentor can be a painful experience. And while a play centered around writers who talk to other writers and critique what they've written sounds like a potentially pretentious bore, Theresa Rebeck has written a play with realistic characters and crackerjack dialogue. The witty drama Seminar is receiving a well-cast and smartly directed production from Actors Theater that manages to be instantly relatable to anyone who has ever shied away from hearing the truth about themselves or something they've created.
Set in New York City, Leonard, a former writer of some merit, now works as an editor and conducts private 10-week writing seminars for aspiring writers at $5,000 a person. He states that he tells the truth, so if you don't want to hear it, or can't deal with it, then this class isn't for you. However, it's debatable if he is really just telling the truth or simply belittling the students as a way to get back at what has transpired in his life. The four of the students Leonard is "instructing" in his seminar have some writing talent, or at least they think they do, and over the course of the 100 minutes of the play all five, including Leonard, will learn something about themselves and each other as well as the truth about their writing abilities.
Told mostly in a series of short scenes, Seminar is a well-written play that shows the effects, good and bad, of being brutally honest. Rebeck has written some great monologues for her characters, but it is a drama with a number of very funny lines and some touching moments too. Rebeck has constructed the play in a way that doesn't allow you to exactly know the relationships the characters have to each other until about halfway through, and you also don't quite know how the seminar came to be and exactly who the character of Leonard is until well into the evening. It is nice to not be hit over the head with all the relevant data in the first five minutes as some plays do; instead, the dialogue flows naturally, with the facts coming out how they would in normal conversation. And while this might seem like another example of the often told story of "teacher with issues who inspires his students while also learning from them," it doesn't exactly follow that plot and Rebeck is very wise to keep the mushy or inspirational moments to a minimum. It is simply a good play, with good characters and smart, funny dialogue and one like recent Broadway hits Proof, Doubt, God of Carnage and Red that have gone on to have healthy lives in regional theaters since their Broadway debuts.
Director Ron May has not only cast the roles perfectly but has also directed the cast to give excellent, engaging, and realistic performances. "Some people can't stand the truth" is Leonard's main line of defending his critiques, yet as delivered by a pretentious, egotistical man, you never quite know how to take it. David Barker effortlessly manages to portray Leonard as the man who finds a way to manipulate the most vulnerable parts of each of his student's character. Barker's line readings instigate pain and hate but he also inspires with just a few moving words and the simplest of phrases. While Leonard is often very dark and mean spirited, there are also moments of pain, jealousy and fear that Barker expertly conveys. It is a well-rounded performance and, even though you don't like the character due to his venomous treatment of the students, you do realize in the end that he is doing what he thinks is best for them.
The rest of the cast are just as good. As Kate, the woman who hosts the weekly seminar sessions, Kerry McCue is multi-dimensional in her portrayal of the rich neo-feminist who finds herself defensive and hurt, not only in defending her Jane Austen themed story that she's been working on for six years but also in how she is guarded and slightly uptight in talking about her low cost, rent-controlled and very large Upper West Side apartment. McCue hits the right beats in her nuanced portrayal of Kate. Conflicted, resentful, jealous and self-doubting are just a few of the many adjectives to describe Martin, Kate's school friend, who we learn is just about the only one of the group with any integrity left. Will Hightower is delivering an appropriately rich performance in this role, and his ability to show agitation, frustration and disapproval are well played.
While Andy Cahoon and Kim Richard have less to do as the pretentiously preppy Douglas and the overly flirty Izzy, they are complete naturals in their portrayals of these two somewhat stereotypical roles, with both instilling a sense of honesty and vulnerability in the parts. Cahoon's portrayal of the entitled young writer is especially effective in the scene where Leonard reviews his work, with Cahoon's changing facial expressions of joy, pain, confusion and acceptance simply perfect. Richards is a delight as the fun, sensual woman who, while she appears to be the type of person who isn't afraid to do what is necessary to get what she wants, also seems she is a lot smarter than she's letting on.
Director May moves the evening along briskly, but also allows the piece to breath at the appropriate moments, especially when Leonard is reading something one of the students has written and the silence in the audience is almost crackling with anticipation of exactly what comments he will make. Jeff Thomson's set design effectively shows the apartments of two of the characters, which are as vastly different as their inhabitants. Costumes by Lois K. Myers' are character appropriate, from the colorful ties, bow ties, sweater vests and other preppy attire for Douglas to the sloppy, inexpensive shirts and jeans for Martin. Since the play is set over many weeks it's nice to see that each character has several different outfits to wear, so we don't see them in the same one over and over again like some productions might do.
While there are a few moments where the verbal tennis games or Leonard's diatribes go on a bit too long, and the ending, for some, might tie things up a little too neatly, Seminar ends up being a witty, dialogue heavy play that is rich and even moving. With extremely nuanced, polished, and well directed performances of Rebeck's well-crafted characters, Seminar is receiving an exceptional production from the Actors Theatre.
One word of caution—there is plenty of profanity and some sexual references in the play.
The Actors Theatre production of Seminar runs through November 9th, 2014, at the Black Theatre Troupe/Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center, at 1333 East Washington Street in downtown Phoenix. Tickets can be ordered at actorstheatrephx.org or by calling (602) 888-0368.
Photo: John Groseclose