BWW Reviews: Rebeck Loses Some Edge but the Cast Does Not in SEMINAR at FPCT
Theresa Rebeck's 2011 play Seminar, now being revived at Baltimore's Fells Point Corner Theatre, is a little less hard-boiled than Mauritius (performed in 2011 at FPCT) or The Understudy, recently staged at the Everyman across town. And that lack of edge is the play's loss. Seminar starts out strong, ripping into the fabric of the business of teaching fiction writing with knife-edged one-liners and characters you love to despise; then, as the plot, the characterizations, and the theme take a hairpin turn, it emerges that, no, the teaching is not a scam after all, the students' fiction has possibilities, and the characters are not what we thought them. All Rebeck's hilarious savagery dissipates. Like Rebeck's writing and show-running for the first season of TV's Smash, it is a little too affectionate toward the business and the people in it to stay as scathing as Rebeck could and should keep it.
None of this is the fault of Steve Goldklang's direction or the acting of the small ensemble, all of which was top-notch. Director and actors jointly make what can be made of the material - and a lot can be made of it. Rebeck always writes generously for her actors, giving them plenty of great lines, plenty of room to emote and back story to explain the emotion. With all this going for it, the show is entertaining enough so that when the final 20 minutes or so comes, the audience is apt to forgive the way Rebeck blows up her own work and the spotty exposition that leaves certain key facts unintentionally ambiguous.
Eric C. Stein, in a role originated by Alan Rickman and taken over by Jeff Goldblum (hard shoes to think of filling), is novelist-turned-guru Leonard, alternating imperious putdowns of the cowering covey of insecure egos who are his postulants with Hemingway-like chest-thumping earned by spending time in tough places like Somalia. Stein can sneer and thump with the best of them. Anne Shoemaker is a pleasure to watch as Kate (who develops from Austen wannabe to ghostwriter for tough guys); her subtle reactions (quiet embarrassment at a fellow-student's humiliation, blood draining from face at her own, glow of sexual satisfaction at a third place) are simply terrific acting. I enjoyed watching Alex Smith as Douglas, a sort of dim cousin of Charles Van Doren of Quiz Show fame, who is deliriously funny as he waffles on and on using meaningless jargon and trying to cover up that he didn't know there was no "d" in Inigo Jones while describing the site of a prestigious writers' conference his fortunate connections got him invited to (and the others did not). It can take talent to portray talentlessness. Michael Zemarel and Cassandra Dutt, whose characters round out the circle of nervous and sex-obsessed scribblers, are also very good.
I also enjoyed the incidental music that played during the blackouts for scene changes, though the program doesn't tell us where it came from. It sounds a bit like David Carbonara's Mad Men scores, though a bit trombone-ier. It does not sound like at least those parts of John Gromada's Broadway score for the show that can be heard on Spotify.
Fells Point Corner Theater continues to exemplify the best of the non-fringe community theater in Baltimore, providing solid productions of mostly contemporary drama, with acting and direction so good you usually can't tell it apart from what you see at the city's professional companies. Seminar is right in line with that.
Seminar, by Theresa Rebeck, directed by Steve Goldklang, through December 7th, at Fells Point Corner Theatre, 251 South Ann Street, Baltimore MD 21231. Tickets $15-$20, at http://www.fpct.org . Nudity, adult language, adult situations.
Production Photo: Chelsea Dove