Seminar, a 2011 play by the prolific American writer Theresa Rebeck, is a thoroughly enjoyable theatre experience, until, that is, you get to the drippy Hollywood ending (but more about that later). Seminar is also a very New York play, filled with sassy, insult humour that is a hallmark of Big Apple playwriting. The setting is even an infamous rent-controlled apartment (infamous because rich people are living in low rent units), its elegant upper West Side appointments courtesy of designer Gillian Gallow, who also has done a great job with character-specific costumes.
Because Seminar is a satire, the characters are over-drawn and one dimensional, but that is the stuff of Rebeck’s humour. Four wannabe fiction writers have each ponied up $5000 to privately hire a famous creative writing coach for ten sessions. Actor Tom McCamus was born to play Leonard, a celebrated author/editor and an arrogant son of a bitch, who gives seminars all over the world, routinely name-dropping countries like Somalia and Ruanda (although the concept of creative writing workshops in third world war zones kind of takes the breath away, but does add to the humour).
The wannabes are Kate (Andrea Houssin), a cynical, brittle, combative feminist who has offered the family apartment for the seminar, Douglas (Ryan James Miller), a pompous know-it-all who shares a last name with a famous author/uncle and trades on the connections that brings, Izzy (Grace Lynn Kung), a sexy vixen who uses her charms to get ahead, and Martin (Nathan Howe), the idealist who honours the craft of writing like a religion, and would rather live in abject poverty than compromise his faith. For him, talent and commitment are everything, even though he is reluctant to show his writings to Leonard and the others. All four of the young actors are very good indeed. They create their particular stereotype and ride it to the max. All certainly have the much-needed presence if one is to share the stage with a Tom McCamus.
The charismatic McCamus has the best lines, and playwright Rebeck keeps them coming at a fast and furious pace. His portrayal of the world-weary, so-called genius of letters is superb. It is his character, after all, that is the anchor of the play. The four wannabes are like lambs to the slaughter, as Leonard slashes their work to shreds. One can’t help chuckling over their plight, even while their egos are being destroyed by Leonard’s barrage of insults. It is a guilty pleasure, so to speak. Director Stewart Arnott runs a tight ship in terms of pacing and character, and the play never lags. He understands this is satire and goes for the laughs. Nevertheless, there is substance in the play. Within the satire, Rebeck does address issues about creative writing, how it is taught, talent versus who you know, egos colliding with truth, career illusions trumping reality. We have to take on faith that these twentysomethings are not without talent, and were encouraged to pursue writing as a career in earlier days.
The play is structured so the audience gets to see the four youngsters, as it were, both alone and with Leonard. When it is just the four, we get to learn about their backgrounds. For example, Kate, has been toiling away for years on a work inspired by Jane Austin and can’t seem to get past it. Kate, not surprisingly, also resorts to junk food in times of stress. As the play moves along and the characters reveal their flaws, each becomes more unlikable. In fact, by the time the play is near the end, you want to punch them all in the mouth, not just Leonard. Izzy’s sexual shenanigans are another factor among the four, as she hops in and out of bed, looking for the main chance. The sensitive Martin suffers the most from Izzy-itis. Within the dialogue continuum, Rebeck unveils a steady stream of damaging personal information about them all, including Leonard, that certainly keeps the dynamic progression of the plot fresh and lively.
Which brings us to the ending. Why oh why would Rebeck work so hard to establish her astute characterizations and a clever satire on creative writing, only to veer off on a 90 degree angle of sentimentality? It is most disappointing. Not to give anything away, I won’t describe Rebeck’s ending. I, however, have come up with what I think is a more suitable ending, and anyone who has seen Seminar and wants to know my scenario, just give me a shout and I’ll be happy to share it with you. To reach me, just use the comment form below this article.
Seminar by Theresa Rebeck, directed by Stewart Arnott, Panasonic Theatre, Nov. 14 to Dec. 6, 2015.