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This has been a really good year for tough teachers on Broadway.
In Master Class, Tyne Daly played Maria Callas, the opera diva ripping her students a new one in her inimitable prima-donna style.
In Venus in Fur, Nina Arianda is a mystery lady who comes to audition for writer Hugh Dancy and/or excoriate him over his sexual politics.
And now, in Theresa Rebeck‘s Seminar, there are four troubled writers and it’s the instructor who has the messy sexual ideas — namely Alan Rickman as Leonard, a literary figure who blithely tells his subjects that they’re “pussies,” “whores,” and “weenies” as they fall into various modes of devastation.
Rickman is arresting as the slyly brutal educator who breaks all the rules, while hiding some novel-worthy secrets of his own.
Rickman’s offhand way with a bitter monologue is unparalleled, and he can also seize back the pace and take a mesmerizing pause before spitting out one more “Pussy!”
His students aren’t completely sympathetic either. Rebeck is brave to create some not overly likable people, and even the closest thing to a protagonist, Kate (the fine Lily Rabe), seems prone to overestimating her skills, playing victim, and dropping her principles when it suits her.
She cooks up a J.T. Leroy-type scandal, but that plotline is dropped when the play’s focus turns to her cynical roommate (Hamish Linklater) and his attempt to learn the truth about Leonard.
The truth about Seminar?
Well, the young writers’ banter initially crackles, as they humorously toss around words like “reductive,” “associative connection,” and “interiority.”
But other times their language becomes surprisingly flat, with too many seminar-discussion utterances of “I liked it” or “It’s good.”
Similarly, the play sometimes veers between the extraordinary and the mundane, with little attention paid to the quartet’s actual writing processes.
Still, Seminar ends up being a tartly funny look at a teacher who makes Miss Brodie look like Mr. Chips, with Rickman never pandering for approval.