Drama about pedagogy tends to follow an insufferable formula: if the professor/high school English teacher/football coach is not used to voice a series of banal platitudes, then he is there to assuage white liberal guilt in some vaguely or explicitly racist way. For that, I would rather open my wrists in a bathtub than have to sit through another god-awful “O Captain! My Captain!” scene again.
Fortunately, Seminar, the new play by Theresa Rebeck, mostly avoids this kind of garbage. Leonard (Alan Rickman), a relentless but brilliant writing coach, takes on four young up-and-comers: the overly-educated, overly-privileged Kate (Lily Rabe), the Erica Jong-like nymphomaniac Izzy (Hettienne Park), the vapid but talented Douglas (Jerry O’Connell), and the passionate but highly protective Martin (Hamish Linklater—an actor who definitely needs to consider a pseudonym).
The group dynamic is fun to watch, especially O’Connell, who packs his dialogue with phrases like “interiority and exteriority” to provide some academic validation to his glossy but essentially meaningless prose; sporting a checkered button down, black tie, and bright red pants—as well as brown shoes without socks to complete the picture of douchebaggery—he is oblivious to how much his success fuels Martin’s hatered, who begins one of his first passive aggressive comments with, “Well, if you don’t care about the accuracy of language…” It is also nice to see Leonard’s incessant berating of his students—he accuses Douglas of being “perfect in a whorish way”—although Mr. Rickman doesn’t quite have his lines down yet, somewhat disturbing the flow of these diatribes.
The problem, however, is when the playwright begins to get serious; one major obstacle the audience must overcome is accepting that by reading less than a page of each writer’s work, Leonard can immediately diagnose their merits and flaws, especially when he tells Martin after only a couple of paragraphs that his five hundred page novel is “very good.” Furthermore, Martin’s monologues about the sacredness of language seem to have been written on auto-pilot and pale in comparison to other much more muscular tributes to the art—Henry’s “cricket bat” speech in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing comes to mind. The action also seems to wrap up a little neatly, and before the curtain falls Leonard has taken Martin on as a protégé, Douglas has a meeting set up with the Weinsteins, while the other two have had their respective talents funneled into the appropriate career. Ultimately, this is all a very romantic conception of the craft, and one that warrants more successful writing to be believed. It is much more enjoyable to see everyone playing a cartoon than a half-conceived character.
Still, at a slender ninety minutes, Seminar proves to be a pleasant production, and the bitterness between colleagues and competitors tends to be both sharp and funny. Expect lightness rather than enlightenment, and it should be enjoyable.