Any survivor of an abusive undergrad creative-writing course led by a martinet English prof can tell you that the bullying literary guru in Theresa Rebeck’s fanged satire “Seminar” is not so far-fetched.
Leonard, played in the Theatre 9/12 mounting of “Seminar” with cobralike sting and bemused bravado by the excellent Jeff Berryman, is a top writer-editor who lords it over students paying big-time for his pitiless judgments.
We eavesdrop on a private class in Manhattan where four ambitious young writers have forked over $5,000 apiece for a weekly session that’s a lot like a course in walking over hot coals. It’s just a first-degree blistering of egos rather than feet.
Leonard’s scathing snap critiques (based on as little evidence as the opening lines of a short story) are amusing, in a squirm-worthy way. And the script by Rebeck, a prolific dramatist with a keen ear and eye for bad behavior in artsy circles, can be glib, but is also shrewdly observed.
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Staging the piece on the floor of Theatre 9/12’s Trinity Parish Hall venue in Seattle, director Paul O’Connell pulls us into the lion’s den with seating around the action. Smart move.
The characters fall into distinct, on-the-make literary types. There’s Kate (a strong Samantha A. Camp), bristly and insecure, who comes from Old Money. (Her posh inherited apartment is where the class meets.)
Kate been rewriting the same story (about a woman obsessed with Jane Austen) for six years. Her scruffy ex-schoolmate Martin (Michael LoSasso), who can barely afford the workshop, has a moocher’s gift for gab, a sarcastic streak and more vulnerability than he lets on.
Martin lusts after fellow student Izzy (dishy Monica Finney), a central-casting sexpot who would happily sleep her way to the top of the literary heap. Izzy also stirs the suited-up libido of Douglas (Randall Brammer), a smug preppy with talent and high connections. (He’s all aglow that The New Yorker “is interested” in one of his stories.)
All these ambitious scribes share an agenda: Get pointers from Leonard, but also win his approval and access to A-list publishing and literary success.
But Berryman’s sly-fox wordmeister isn’t the morale-booster type. Wafting in between frequent, Hemingway-esque reporting trips from war-torn outposts of the world, he berates this group as provincial “pussies” not tough enough to hang out in Somalia or Rwanda war zones like he does, or swallow a few poison-pill writing critiques.
A student rebellion soon brews (in between a lot of bed-hopping). And enough dirt is dug up on Leonard’s past to besmirch his pedestal — and reveal him as an actual human being, even a sympathetic one, with maybe something helpful to offer.
Rebeck has a flair for mini-twists and turns of plots, and there are several you don’t see coming in “Seminar.” Some add spice and reflection, others seem gimmicky.
“Seminar” demands a lot from the 9/12 actors, who tear into their roles with gusto — at times, with overly broad gusto, considering the proximity of the audience. (LoSasso is the worst offender.)
There’s a bitter aftertaste to this play that may be unavoidable given the plentiful bile that’s spewed and ingested. Yet for all Rebeck’s jaundiced satire of a rarefied scene, “Seminar” ultimately wants to affirm and defend creative writing as a meaningful, valuable quest — one not for the faint of heart.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org