Theresa Rebeck’s “Seminar” is a sturdy example of a genre that once ruled Broadway but is now more or less defunct: the intellectual light comedy. With its literary lion (Jeff Goldblum) roaring and sniffing out red meat among his writing group’s eager acolytes, “Seminar” is fueled more by plot mechanics than by the thrum of real life, but on its own limited terms the Ahmanson Theater presentation is quite enjoyable.
The potential in Rebeck’s premise for bon mots, sexual antics and reversals is realized almost to a fault. Early on, you realize those most superficially promising in the seminar will bring the least to the party, and the doofus will actually be the prodigy. The most and best sex will go to those who seem least capable of or interested in it. A towering Colossus will have feet of clay. And so on.
This is a world in which a reader need only scan a page or two of manuscript to detect a work of utter genius. (Really?) But let’s face it, we embrace boulevard comedy because of, not in spite of, its distance from verisimilitude: David Zinn’s apartment setting, for example, is almost a cartoon parody of Upper West Side gentility.
The brittle artificiality of “Seminar” is rather comforting and certainly leaves us receptive to the playwright’s many on-point zingers about the writer’s craft. “Don’t defend yourself,” Goldblum’s Leonard advises. “If you defend yourself you’re not listening.” Good advice, even if the teacher is a first class a-hole.
Goldblum’s familiar screen persona — the distracted, narcissistic academic whose surface affability disguises a viper’s tongue — serves him well in giving slack to, and then reeling in, his hapless prey. “You’ll never be on a panel,” he confidently but soul-crushingly predicts to a talented newcomer, and to another, “It’s hollow. The work is hollow. I’d think about Hollywood.” (Judging by the opening-night cheer at such swipes, the hometown crowd has no problem with Rebeck’s biting the hand that feeds the Ahmanson.)
Sam Gold, the original Broadway helmer, stages efficiently and often wittily, as when the group suddenly advances on the hostess as she reveals the manse’s stabilized rent. That fury everyone can relate to.
But the playing of the students — all written as types — mostly lags behind that of their mentor. Lucas Near-Verbrugghe and Jennifer Ikeda exude comic energy but aren’t very believable as compositors of anything more difficult than a shopping list. Greg Keller’s crabbed nerd is stuck with endless, tedious questioning of self-evident fact (“Wait; you like him?!”), and the thesp’s visual, vocal and temperamental resemblance to Johnny Galecki’s Leonard in “The Big Bang Theory” throws everything a little off.
Only Aya Cash’s self-satisfied Bennington grad who’s uncertainly confronting adulthood seems to have multiple layers going on. The sparks she and Goldblum give off, whose nature keeps changing over time, prove the evening’s best anchor to the give and take of genuinely observed behavior.