What can any writer say about Seminar, Theresa Rebeck’s new play at the Golden Theatre? To commit even the first sentence to the page is to anticipate just how Seminar’s chief character, Leonard (Alan Rickman), might savage it. A former novelist, Leonard now throws together a living as a ruthless editor of fiction and occasional teacher of literary craft. In Seminar, four aspiring writers have paid the princely sum of $5,000 each to have Leonard lacerate their prose over the course of 10 sessions. He calls a story he dislikes “a sort of desiccated corpse” and “a soul-sucking waste of words.” A short piece he does enjoy earns the slashing praise, “There’s a level of competence here that is almost chilling.” His red pen draws blood.
Leonard might also have some choice words for Rebeck’s script, but with Rickman at its center, Seminar proves a crude and enjoyable play, which Sam Gold’s direction and several of the performances elevate to a pleasure more than guilty.
In scripts such as Mauritius and The Scene, Rebeck has distinguished herself as a skilled but trite writer, happy to avoid genuine behavior or complex emotions if she can craft a neat little zinger instead. Certainly, Seminar betrays that same factitiousness. The schematic plotting has the savor of a spreadsheet, and the students are little more than types: a prig (Lily Rabe), a kiss-up (Jerry O’Connell), a scheming hedonist (Hettienne Park), and a mumbling cynic (Hamish Linklater). Much of the language is vulgar—seemingly owing less to provocation that laziness—and name-dropping patters the stage like a halfhearted hailstorm.
But here’s the twist: Seminar is fun. Rickman savors nearly every line, even the ones that don’t deserve it. He stalks the stage with a kind of easy menace, and his signature voice—half acid, half silk—makes even an innocuous word like “semicolon” sound positively putrescent. Rickman accepts Leonard as a ridiculous character, but at the end of the play he contrives to render him fully human.
In his numerous stage appearances, Rickman has been rarely less than excellent, but perhaps he received an assist here from Gold, making a lithe and lively Broadway directing debut. Gold’s emphasis on deeply felt performances and wholly drawn characters alleviates much of Rebeck’s glibness, allowing Rabe and Linklater to transcend the limitations of their roles.
Seminar offers much of what a Broadway audience desires: a star, some laughs, a gorgeous set, even female nudity. It’s a wonderful way to pass an evening, but no less slick and shallow for it. Like Leonard remarks of a short story, “It’s perfect, in a kind of whorish way.”