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