Writing to Type

I have such mixed feelings about Seminar, the play now wrapping up its run at San Francisco Playhouse. On the one hand, it’s a new play by Theresa Rebeck, who gave us the sharp dark comedy The Scene and the marvelously tangled crime caper Mauritius (as well as more flimsy endeavors such as the workplace sexism satire What We’re Up Against). What’s more, it’s directed by Amy Glazer, who introduced Rebeck to the Bay Area with The Scene at SF Playhouse, which she later directed as the feature film Seducing Charlie Barker, and who clearly has a great affinity for the playwright’s work. And as a satire of fiction writers’ workshops, Seminar is pretty sharp and funny and biting in its own right.

James Wagner, Patrick Russell, Lauren English, Charles Shaw Robinson, and Natalie Mitchell in Seminar. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.

James Wagner, Patrick Russell, Lauren English, Charles Shaw Robinson, and Natalie Mitchell in Seminar. Photo by Jessica Palopoli.

On the other hand… well, this is where it gets difficult. In the meantime, Rebeck made a TV show called Smash. You may have heard of it. After the initial rush of “oh my god, it’s about theater!” subsided, most of us noticed that it was actually a pretty lousy show. And having watched it regardless makes a lot of similar elements in her playwriting really stick out to me.

The story takes place among wealthy Manhattanites, which is as much a default setting for plays as Los Angeles is for movies, and for pretty much the same reasons. It may not be the most interesting or relevant setting to the rest of the country, but it is to the people you’re courting when you’re trying to sell a play. (Seminar premiered on Broadway in 2011, so it’s very much a New York play for a moneyed New York audience, or for those who would very much like to be.) Bill English’s set is the large and elegant sitting room of some obviously very rich people—though that at least is discussed in the play, which isn’t always the case with these palatial New York apartments shown in plays, movies and TV shows that no real person could ever actually afford to live in.

Seminar is about a private writing workshop in which a bunch of wealthy young wannabe writers have paid an exorbitant amount of money for a flashy fiction writer to abuse and belittle them and their work. The characters are all broad types: Kate (Lauren English) is the tentative, bookish perfectionist who’s been working on the same short story for years, only to be told by the workshop leader that it’s a lifeless piece of crap. She’s also the one hosting the seminar, and spends the rest of the play fuming ineffectually over his constant slights.

Douglas (Patrick Russell) is a cocky show-off, that go-getter guy who can’t stop bloviating about stuff he knows very little about. He’s a name-dropper with a famous writer relative, and everything good that ever happened to him is through working that family connection. He’s worked very hard to mold himself into a kind of archetype of the up-and-coming bright young white male writer that everybody seems to be looking for all the time.

At first I couldn’t figure out why Izzy (Natalie Mitchell) had such bizarre posture. She sits down with her chest thrust out like she’s in a modeling shoot, and when she’s standing she leads with her crotch. That can’t be comfortable. But it tells us right away that she’s the sex object of the group, and indeed, that’s the sum total of everyone’s interaction with her. All the guys want to have sex with her, and any interest anyone shows in her writing (which is also about sex) is dismissed by everyone else as being just because the person showing an interest wants to have sex with her, or maybe is having sex with her. And Izzy knows all that and doesn’t see a single thing wrong with that dynamic.

Then there’s Martin (James Wagner), who’s the schlubby, shy “real” writer whose work is too precious to him to even let the teacher read it. And really, there are only two directions that particular plot thread can be headed. Martin is the only one there who’s not wealthy. He can’t even make rent, so he’s crashing at Kate’s place. Stewing with class resentment, he can’t stand Douglas and is jealous of any attention he gets, especially from Izzy, and he’s increasingly contemptuous of teacher Douglas as well, but only after Douglas has humiliated him for a while. There’s supposed to be some romantic tension between Martin and Kate to make us think they’re supposed to be together if only he’d wise up—it’s referenced later on—but that spark just isn’t there, in either of them.

As for their ostensible teacher, Leonard, well, that’s the fun of the play. In a captivating performance by Charles Shaw Robinson, Leonard dresses like Simon Cowell (costumed by Abra Berman) and is always jetting off to war-torn countries to drink with genocide survivors and is relentlessly, callously cruel about his students’ writing and personalities—and if they ever dare to object, he just doubles down, taunting them until they buckle under. (Alan Rickman originated the part on Broadway, so you can just imagine.) He’s a horrible jerk, but is he one with a heart of gold? And by the way, does he actually have any talent?

Once all the pieces are in place, the story that follows is pretty predictable. Not that you necessarily know what exactly is going to happen, but there are only a few basic scenarios, and none of the surprises in store are even remotely surprising. The addition of sometime hot-button writerly topics such as plagiarism and fake memoirs add to the impression that these aren’t characters that we’re supposed to take as people so much as examples of the kind of people that we think of when we think of writing seminars. There’s even the proverbial novel in a drawer.

So those are my quibbles, and they’re pretty major ones that make it hard to suspend disbelief and take the characters seriously enough to have much stake or interest in what happens to them. And that’s doubly true when the characters themselves are in the business of picking stories apart for being too facile, like the one they’re in.

But the fact is, it’s an entertaining play. All the humiliating abuse Leonard heaps on the writers is very funny in its own right, all the more so because you don’t feel enough for them to cringe and can just sit back and enjoy the Schadenfreude. Glazer’s staging is lively, and it’s a pretty solid cast, bringing what there is of the characters to life amusingly. But as to whether there’s much point to the whole exercise, well, let’s just let Leonard be the judge of that.

Through June 14
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street
San Francisco, CA

Show #44 of 2014, attended May 9.

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