Saturday, July 4, 2015

New York Review: SEMINAR

A wonderful cast of four young very skilled actors is led by Alan Rickman in Theresa Rebeck's new dark comedy about writers, according to Toby Zinman.

New York Review: SEMINAR

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By Toby Zinman

For the Inquirer

If you watched the superb “Song of Lunch” on Masterpiece Theatre last week, starring Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson, you know how well Rickman does sophisticated, arrogant, loathsome self-loathing. If you know Rickman from the Harry Potter movies, you know how well he does intimidating.

In Theresa Rebeck’s  new dark comedy, Seminar, opening tonight on Broadway, Rickman plays Leonard, a famous novelist conducting a  ten-week seminar in writing for four young aspirants. He  is all of the above (sophisticated, arrogant, self-loathing,  intimidating), and there is enough moral ambiguity to keep this funny, engrossing play from sinking into sit-com. As do the four skilled, subtle young actors—Lily Rabe, Hamish Linklater, Jerry O’Connell and Hettienne Park—under Sam Gold’s direction. They can actually make it interesting to watch people watching someone reading silently to himself.

The seminar meets in the huge, beautiful and rent-controlled apartment belonging to Kate  who seems to be merely a privileged Bennington graduate—a lonely and easily exploited young woman who eats raw cookie dough for comfort. Her old friend  Martin seems to be a needy nerd, too timid to assert himself fictionally or sexually. These seemings will all turn out to be false, just as Leonard’s pompous abusiveness (“I remember when I was at Yale with Penn Warren” and “I’ve been in Somalia these past two weeks”), and scornful defensiveness of a has-been, will turn out to be only the surface of the story and of his personality.

The other two students are less developed characters but serve their entertaining dramatic purpose: Izzy is a shallow, savvy Asian exotic whose goal is to be in New York magazine; Douglas is a well-connected, trendy guy whose “doglike equanimity” serves him well as does a “level of competence that is chilling.”

There’s a good deal of writerly  talk about “referencing Jane Austen” and “interiority and exteriority.” Rebeck knows this world, and while she mocks the milieu, she also deeply sympathizes with people who choose so uphill a road as fiction writing. Like her recent play, The Understudy which does for the world of theatre what Seminar does for the world of writing, she can provide hilarious, biting dialogue and still move us with the truth and the difficulty of the creative task.

Rickman delivers, with surgical precision, a blood-curdling monologue of cynicism, only to have the play’s last scene—and the astonishing reveal of the set (designed by David Zinn)—show us the man beneath the monologue, and the real writer’s room beneath the sleek apartment.

If Rebeck knows that “Fraud is a way of life in a capitalist culture. Especially in the arts,” she also knows that there are passionate artists who work their skins off, risking everything.

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Golden Theater, 252 W. 45th Street, NY. Tickets $51.50 – 126.50. Information: 212-239-6200

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."


Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.


Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.


Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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