I’ve never been a fan of Alan Rickman’s tight-lipped, prissy-mouthed acting style, but sometimes he picks a role that fits like a knee-high nylon sock, in a play that suits his nasal, slanty-eyed mannerisms with the sound of two hands clapping instead of one. The result in Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar, at the Golden, is a blessing. In fact, the entire cast of five is a marvel of well-oiled introspection, which is certainly a good thing, because without them, the enjoyable but often untidy and uneven play would be nothing more than a lot of clever one-liners.
Mr. Rickman plays Leonard, a sour, disillusioned, once-respected author who mysteriously gave up writing to take up copy editing at Random House. Impoverished and bitter, he now teaches writing workshops for pretentious young hopefuls with ambitions to write the great American novel. His current seminar is set in an $800-a-month rent-stabilized apartment on the Upper West Side with nine rooms and a river view belonging to one of the four students in the class who have shelled out $5,000 apiece to impress each other by dispensing earth-shattering undergraduate proclamations such as “Kerouac is a misogynist hack” and “Post-modernism has really fallen on hard times.” The students are Kate (riveting Lily Rabe, who looks more like her mother, Jill Clayburgh, every time I see her), the wealthy, overeducated pseudointellectual Bennington graduate whose apartment serves as a makeshift classroom; Izzy (Hettienne Park), an Asian sexpot whose ambition is to write the kind of steamy stuff that will land her on the cover of New York magazine and bares her breasts to prove she’s ready for the task; Douglas (Jerry O’Connell), a preppie dude who learns to his horror that he’s cut out for nothing better than junky Hollywood screenplays; and Martin (Hamish Linklater), a skinny snob who annoys everyone by acting like a member of the semantics police (“Inigo! You said ‘Indigo Jones.’ It’s Inigo!”). Secretly, they all want to win the approval of their teacher, but what they get is humiliation, insults, discouragement and a torrent of colorful four-letter words that reduces them all to little more than literary larvae. Ms. Rebeck cusses more than David Mamet, but is more amusing than deadly.
Nothing they come up with discussing and dissecting each other’s work rouses the hooded eyelids of their pompous ass of a leader. He calls them whores, dismisses their stories as hollow and chides them for knowing nothing about what they are writing about—like, for instance, the world. He has traveled the globe rubbing elbows with HIV patients, Rwanda genocide survivors and “a Russian prostitute of indeterminate gender” who inspired him. Why can’t they experience life before they attempt to describe it in a “soul-sucking waste of words”? A story Kate has been working on for six years is trashed in one sentence for lack of relevance. (“I don’t have to go beyond the first five words, because I don’t give a shit!” he attacks.) While Leonard takes a two-week break from the 10-week seminar to inspect the damage in Somalia, the group begins to suspect maybe they’re being ripped off. Since no seminar I’ve ever attended in the craft of fiction writing (or anything else) has ever been taught by such a cruel, mean-spirited sadist, I began to suspect Ms. Rebeck’s plausibility quotient is lacking.
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.