Those who can’t do, teach, or so the saying goes. But those who teach aren’t always ace at that, either. Take Ward Stein (Austin Pendleton), an elder dramatist whose one hit (Deaf Snowlight, Lord help us) has acquired a holy-nimbus status in the rearview mirror of a downhill career. The New York University office where Stein leads a coveted seminar has walls crowded with old show posters and his Obie Award on prominent display. In this shrine to the sacred mysteries of playwriting, Ward is high priest to a quartet of millennial acolytes. By the end of The Workshop, Torrey Townsend’s bitingly funny demolition of writerly ambition, you may be tempted to fail both professor and students.
The fresh meat for Stein’s academic meat grinder includes glib lit-bro Riley (Tim Platt), seductive Kris (Claire Siebers), geeky-chic Lili (Laura Lassy Townsend), and chill cipher Zorick (Cesar J. Rosado). Over two and a half hours, Townsend’s narrative buzzes around restlessly, not settling too long on any one individual’s story, but his skill orchestrating group scenes and offstage action make it an enjoyable journey into disillusionment and humiliation. Stein drops names (Mamet), important quotes (Emerson), and, of course, acid remarks on the drafts of his amused/appalled charges. Apart from the classroom chatter and glimpses of works in progress, there are flashes of sex (Kris makes moves on the teacher) and outrage (Riley kicks a chair at a smarmy, Bruce Norris-like guest speaker).
Such an insider view is bound to evoke Theresa Rebeck’s fic-world lampoon Seminar, Annie Baker’s TV-hacks-in-metaphysical-free-fall The Antipodes, and the queasy nostalgia of Wallace Shawn’s show folks in Evening at the Talk House. It’s fairly self-selecting; I’m not sure that anyone who hasn’t taken a theater class, written a play, or bitched about Ben Brantley would entirely get The Workshop. What elevates the material over drive-by satire is Townsend’s mixed love and disgust for stage dinosaurs like Stein, survivors of the last great phase of American theater, when masterpieces and social relevance were still conceivable. (The playwright himself makes a dickish cameo as the Norris figure, trash-talking Tony Kushner while gulping Starbucks and eyeballing the class cutie.) Later, an unhinged Stein rages at his class about how O’Neill “was not renting a fucking condo in Williamsburg with a membership to Crunch working on his biceps… [he] was a socially unacceptable stone-alcoholic wreck who fucked hookers and shot heroin and everybody thought he was crazy and he couldn’t get along with another living soul but guess what? Eugene O’Neill had a story to tell.” Your heart pounds with pride, even as your gorge rises at the myth-mongering.
Townsend’s script could stand to lose twenty minutes, and in fact it almost has: Yesterday, a producer emailed me to explain that a ten- to fifteen-minute scene of Ward rhapsodizing over Beethoven had been cut during subsequent shows. There are also minor false notes or errata: Artists aren’t “up for an Obie” — they simply get them — and Charles Isherwood wasn’t reviewing in New York in 1995. But the intimate, tight-focus staging by director Knud Adams in the lobby of the HB Playwrights Theater is perfectly scaled: forty-one audience members on bleachers mere feet away from squirming students and bloviating prof. (Appropriate that washed-up Stein and his kids are theater-adjacent, just not actually occupying the stage.) The young ensemble is appealing and precise in its character typing, and Pendleton does Pendleton — the elvish, shambolic shaman — surpassingly well. “You can’t do much better… much better than this,” he mumbles in front of an admiring freshman, gazing sadly at a hardbound first edition of Deaf Snowlight (take one; he’s got plenty). That lesson is enough to send any student running screaming from campus.
124 Bank Street Theater
124 Bank Street
Through August 13