New York City Theater
John Golden Theater
When one character in “Seminar,” the strikingly funny, thinly plotted new Broadway play, uses the words “sinister” and “wry,” he’s talking about a piece of writing. But on display before us, as if on a pedestal, is the one actor in the world for whom “sinister and wry” are nouns, not adjectives.
In Theresa Rebeck’s sexy work, the center of attraction is Leonard, a onetime famous writer who holds private sessions for aspiring authors. Acerbic, condescending, dyspeptic, unethical Leonard (he’s not above sleeping with his female students) is played by Alan Rickman who also taught Harry Potter how inextricably bound are learning and humiliation, encouragement and destructiveness.
Rickman’s brilliance, coupled with four other fine actors as his alternately cowed and courageous students, is the main reason for seeing what may prove to be one of the season’s successes. Plays and films about writers struggling to write are of primary interest, really, to other writers. At worst, they hang around with “nobodies who majored in English at itty bitty liberal arts colleges on the east coast.”
When Leonard tears into his students’ works with unprintable expletives, or praises them for no discernible reason, we’re in the presence of ego run rampant. Ah, but wait: underneath the rhinoceros skin beats a heart, not exactly of gold, but something approaching concern.
Before that point, Leonard is cutting and personal. When one student says he really liked a piece of writing, Leonard shoots back with “you wouldn’t think the story was so great if it really were any good. If it were really good? You’d (expletive) hate it. Writers in their natural state are about as civilized as feral cats.”
Leonard is also vulnerable to the world’s ills. (He travels to and fro from Somalia.) In a bravura speech, he reveals, yes, what satisfaction accrues to a teacher who discovers talent.
Under Sam Gold’s detailed direction, where every inflection, every movement is calibrated, the hour-and-a-half evening flies by. As a play, “Seminar” is neither memorable nor particularly convincing, but its sense of pain and danger are both amusing and scary.
And it’s worth everything to see Rickman’s reaction when faced with an accusation about his honesty. As the color drains from his face, character and actor blend in a moment of genius.
--David A. Rosenberg
Dec. 1, 2011