When I first saw Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar five months ago, I thought it was a wonderful piece of fluff that was ruined by several failed attempts at profundity. The second time around, the fluff feels more accented and the failed profundity falls into the background.
Perhaps this is because of the change in cast. Jeff Goldblum is a terrific actor—and perhaps the coolest man since Elliott Gould—but he is not transformative. No matter what role he plays, he remains Jeff Goldblum. Here, as always, he strikes one as being a long-limbed alien biologist who both wants to study and fornicate with the humans. This endlessly silly (and delightful) persona fits Rebeck’s play better than Alan Rickman’s seriousness. When Mr. Rickman delivers a line that contains the phrase “a thief of words,” he tries too hard to sell it and it hits the ground with an cringe-inducing thud; the same clunker in Mr. Goldman’s mouth doesn’t sound quite as bad—he breezes by it, he doesn’t bother lingering, and we don’t have the time to reflect on its pretentiousness. Furthermore, Mr. Rickman used to only spend a few seconds reading his student’s work before making large and accurate conclusions about their writing, leading Ben Brantley to quip, “Maybe you can’t judge a book by its cover, but apparently you can come up with a spot-on appraisal just by eyeballing a couple of sentences.” This will always be a problem with Seminar—we can’t sit and wait for ten minutes while an actor flips through pages—but Mr. Goldblum at least takes more time, rapidly mouthing the words he is reading and offering us a greater sense of believability.
And while there was nothing wrong with Lily Rabe, Zoe Lister-Jones (Kate) is simply a funnier actor. Her shrill, nasal voice nicely compliments the sarcasm that oozes in most of her dialogue. Perhaps the only downgrade is Justin Long (Martin), an actor who specializes in whining and rarely succeeds in winning our sympathy.
Ultimately, there is no getting around the last ten minutes or so of Seminar, an awkward ordeal in which the previously enjoyable satire descends into a romantic, unreasonable and unbelievable depiction of writing. This time out, however, the cast has a better feel for the material, for its strengths and weaknesses, and its flaws are far easier to forgive in light of its merits.