Teaching the young proves a treacherous business for both tutor and students in “Seminar,” Theresa Rebeck’s dark comedy about a literary lion and the young writers he eats for breakfast at his private seminars. Alan Rickman is heaven-sent as the sexy, sneering, snarling literary legend who condescends to tutor four aspiring novelists who have paid through the nose for the privilege of being abused. But these clever youngsters know how to play this intellectual contact sport, and even though everyone stops short of drawing blood, the civilized games they play are enormously entertaining.
It’s only natural for an audience to hold its collective breath in anticipation of Rickman’s star entrance as Leonard, the once celebrated author who has been reduced to giving private tutorials to novice authors at $5,000 a head. But hotshot helmer Sam Gold (“August: Osage County”) has cast such bright young things in this sparkling production that the waiting time holds its own pleasures.
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The four would-be novelists who have signed up for these weekly seminars are familiar characters without being predictable types. Rebeck (the creative juice behind NBC’s “Smash”) has an ear for self-defining idiomatic dialogue, so no one sounds like anyone else, either.
Douglas (a terrific Broadway debut by well-known entity Jerry O’Connell) is the swaggering egotist who trashes famous novelists like Jack Kerouac while bragging on his own creative genius (“It’s not so much post-modern, really, as magical realism”) and playing politics.
Martin (another eye-catching Broadway debut by Hamish Linklater) is the smartest kid in the room and probably the most talented, too. But nobody knows for sure how good or bad his writing is, because he’s too self-conscious (and too scared) to read his work before the group.
Izzy (yet another wonderful Main Stem debut by Hettienne Park) is fun, because she’s such a colorful creature (especially in costumer David Zinn’s exotic plumage) that it’s easy to underestimate her intelligence and talent.
Best of all, there’s Kate, a Bennington girl who’s an endearing mass of contradictions — and cheerfully aware of them all in Lily Rabe’s magnetic performance. Kate is the privileged tenant of the spacious rent-stabilized apartment on the Upper West Side where the group meets for Leonard’s weekly seminars. (A place worthy of lust, in David Zinn’s streamlined modern design.) Kate is so good-natured (or is it self-effacing?) that she lets Martin and Izzy shack up at her place, even though she’s got a crush on Martin herself.
When Leonard (Rickman), finally comes down from the mountaintop to blind mere mortals with his brilliance, poor Kate becomes his first victim. Pouncing on the first line of her story, he dismisses Kate’s alter-ego narrator as “an over-educated, completely inexperienced, sexually inadequate girl who has rich parents who give her everything and who has nothing to say.”
Leonard’s savage critiques are redeemed by his wit, and by the passionate regard for good writing that prompts his cruelty. And when he finally reads something that shows genuine talent, he’s generous with his praise.
The problem here is that the audience is never made privy to any actual work produced by Leonard’s students, which makes his clever pronouncements sound facile and his sage insights seem shallow. The one-sidedness of these blind literary discussions also deprives the other characters from making genuine contributions of their own.
But if Rebeck isn’t really interested in a serious literary exchange between a wise old statesmen and his promising apprentices, she’s entirely committed to exploring the teacher-pupil and pupil-pupil sexual dynamics of private educational pods like this one. Although the young writers claim to be shocked by Leonard’s unethical behavior, they all hurl themselves into these mating dances with more enthusiasm than any of them have shown about writing the great American novel.