2nd Story Theatre’s Seminar Proves Amusing and Provocative
Just go see 2nd Story Theatre's Seminar, by Theresa Rebeck.by Bill Rodriguez, CoxHub
Fiction writers have the skill set and, arguably, the moral standards of con men and serial killers. Run, run away swiftly, boys and girls, if ever you are tempted to tread the bone-littered path leading to the praise of reviewers and the love of adoring readers.
This is being confessed by someone who has attended creative writing seminars in grad school, published poems and short stories, and taught writing here and there, but don’t take my word for it. Just go see 2nd Story Theatre’s Seminar, by Theresa Rebeck, in the upstairs space through February 22, directed with close attention to the varieties of neurotic self-involvement by Pat Hegnauer.
Four young writers, at various stages of talent and attainment, are each paying $5000 for a 10-week seminar to learn how to improve their craft. With one exception, all are sufficiently privileged to come up with that much money. They are Douglas (James Lucey), quietly competent; Kate (Erin Elliott), quietly self-effacing, until she isn’t; Izzy (Tania Montenegro), who is practicing sleeping her way to the top; and Martin (Ara Boghigian), the one among them we are most interested in, the one who couldn’t really afford to be here yet who never submits anything for the others to read.
But the person in the room most in need of this talking cure for loquacious navel-gazers is seminar leader Leonard (Ed Shea), who hasn’t published in recent years but whose earlier reputation has kept his star bright. Shea presents him convincingly, with gusto brimming over, like someone trying to appear larger-than-life in order to distract us from his diminished humanity.
Leonard is a self-aggrandizing, world-traveling thrillseeker, who likes to talk about rubbing up against the war-zone thugs and murderers he’s written about. Rather than give cogent criticism about the class’s work, he enjoys bloviating abstractly about Writing with a capital W. He’s an awful writing instructor, to the point of implausibility. The most extreme example of his incompetence and abuse of his students is when he doesn’t get past half of the opening sentence of Kate’s submission, stopping at the semi-colon to trash the whole piece – which she’s been working on for six years. Everybody else likes her writing.
Underscoring the insincerity and foolishness of his observations, Leonard praises a couple of pages written by Izzy, whom he wants to sleep with, for the sound of the words – “There’s real energy here!” – saying that the meaning doesn’t even matter. Dismayed that the class has more to do with libido then literacy, Kate observes that if the group were made up exclusively of lesbian writers, she’d be a star. Her character, or our understanding of it, changes over the course of the play as she gains confidence in her writing, climbing out of her diffidence and willingness to be taken advantage of, all but standing up straighter.
If Leonard remained as superficial as he is at the outset, he and the play would be trivial. But the character reveals glimpses of having character. Douglas, a competent New Yorker-style writer, is from a prestigious literary family, thereby worthy of sucking up to. Nevertheless, at one point, encouraged to be critical, Leonard calls his work, frankly but not meanly, “skillful but whorish.”
That’s an important moment. It allows us to believe the culminating moment of the play, and Martin’s reason for being in the drama, when Leonard drops all subterfuge and pretense, demonstrating – maybe learning for the first time – what it is to be a teacher, how an editor’s cajoling and shaping can be as creative and productive as writing itself.
Playwright Rebeck has written voluminously for TV (NYPD Blue), and film (Harriet the Spy), as well as the stage (Mauritius). Her writing 22 one-acts in addition to 20 full-length plays has signaled her concern about stopping when she’s said enough. Seminar, despite being about wordy people, knows just when to shut up – its optimistic conclusion could be the first scene of another play.
Speaking of such, let me strongly encourage you to see the thematically related Collected Stories, by Donald Margulies, in 2nd Story’s intimate downstairs theater, directed by Mark Peckham. The stunning, nuanced performance by Lynne Collinson isn’t one I expect I’ll ever forget.