Alan Rickman Teaches the Texas Chainsaw Massacre of Writers Workshops in Seminar

Theresa Rebeck’s misanthropic master class is saved by devastating performances

To ease her depression, Kate wolfs down bags of chips, liters of Coca-Cola, quarts of Ben & Jerry’s and bowls of raw cookie dough, necessitating a lot of food props. This trash food explosion is shared by Martin, who has now become her roommate. The group begins to plot a strategy to expose their teacher as a phony. When Leonard returns, Kate presents him with a memoir about a Cuban transvestite gang leader written by someone she met at Bennington. Leonard finally loves something so much that he wants to meet the author. The joke is that Kate wrote it herself to prove the teacher’s theories about “write what you know” ridiculous. But Douglas goes one better—accusing Leonard of plagiarism in his early work. Stripped of stature, dignity and even identity, Leonard becomes a marble parody of failure. Or is he? Does he end up a poseur or a creative inspiration? It isn’t until the play’s final scene (shockingly sentimental, considering the cynical nature of the material) that we discover what Leonard’s motives are, and how he plans to make his talent count. For a master craftsman in mannerisms bordering on madness, Mr. Rickman is captivating. You can almost see the spit harden in the corners of his pursed lips, while the blood coagulates in his narrowed eyes. This happens in all of his roles, and he usually plays them all the same way. This time he’s doubly malevolent, but curiously charming.

I’m not at all sure what Ms. Rebeck hopes we will take home with us from Seminar, but I am convinced the point of the play is that there is no point at all. It meekly points out the fact, underscored by abrasive, hostile monologues, that fiction is dead, Hollywood is the only way to make money as a writer, and accepting teaching jobs in the wilderness of dream shredding is the answer for desperate failures to pay off their credit cards. It takes one hour and thirty minutes for Leonard (and Mr. Rickman) to reveal their secret vulnerability, and for Ms. Rebeck to map out what happened to the four students in the seminar. I’m afraid I found that final scene in Leonard’s cluttered, book-strewn hovel, in which you find out how everyone turns out, disappointingly contrived and frankly unbelievable.

But don’t be deterred. Theresa Rebeck is sloppy at structure, but she creates interesting characters and writes dialogue that is pungent, contemporary and smart. Director Sam Gold moves everyone around in groups, like chess pieces, with a level of competence that is thrilling in its thoroughness, and it’s a tribute to perfect casting that the actors find the subtext to their characters that is not always evident in the writing. I said earlier that Seminar is uneven and I meant it. But all told, it’s not a bad evening, and sometimes it’s even a good deal better than that.