BWW REVIEW: STRONG CAST EARNS 'A' FOR EFFORT IN STONEHAM'S 'SEMINAR'
Written by Theresa Rebeck; directed by Weylin Symes; scenic design by Christopher Ostrom; sound design by David Wilson; costume design by Deirdre McCabe Gerrard; lighting design by Christopher Ostrom; props master, GeorGina Kayes; production stage manager, Natalie A. Lynch
Cast in alphabetical order:
Jordan Ahnquist, Martin; Liz Hayes, Kate; Jesse Hinson, Douglas; Sophorl Ngin, Izzy; Christopher Tarjan, Leonard
Performances and Tickets:
Now through September 29, Stoneham Theatre, 395 Main Street, Stoneham, Mass.; tickets are $40, $45 and $50 available by calling the Box Office at 781-279-2200 or online at www.stonehamtheatre.org.Theresa Rebeck, whose latest Broadway play Seminar is currently enjoying a snappy production at Stoneham Theatre in Stoneham, Mass., is best known for her television work on police shows like Law and Order: Criminal Intent and the late lamented musical series SMASH, a mixed bag of show tunes and soap opera that never lived up to its hype. In Seminar, Rebeck's crisp style of small screen writing is very much in evidence. Her deliberate PG-13 grit and facile urbane wit always seem to end scenes on a pithy "stay tuned" button that feels like a lead-in to a commercial. You can almost hear the director yell "cut" before each blackout.
Still, Rebeck is funny. And the cast members in Stoneham's smart and sassy production (running now through September 29) know just how to make her jokes land. By playing it straight, they let the laughs come naturally. They also commit themselves fully to their characters, so the "lessons" are easy to take, as well.
Seminar refers to a private master writing class taught by the abusive Leonard (Christopher Tarjan), a world-renowned fiction writer who would rather be risking his life in war-torn Somalia than coddling the fragile egos of the four eager young graduate students who have paid $5000 each to be in his class. The group is hosted by Kate (Liz Hayes), the "feminist" writer in the mix who lives in a spacious rent-controlled apartment that she inherited from her family. The sessions are held in her apartment's massive library, wherein Leonard brutally strips away more and more layers of pretense in his students' writing, all the while inadvertently exposing the pretenses in his and their personal lives, as well.As Leonard excoriates his students one by one, often after reading just one sentence of their submitted works, the classmates either rally to each other's defense or side with their tormentor, depending upon whose favor they want to court at any given moment. This is an insecure lot, to be sure, so support can give way to competition in a heartbeat. That these back-stabbing characters are likeable at all is due in large part to the nimble performances of Stoneham's guileless cast.
Liz Hayes and Jordan Ahnquist are the up-tight duo Kate and Martin. They are friends, and could be lovers if they would give themselves over to it, but their anxieties over their writing - and their jealousies over the sexually charged Izzy (Sophorl Ngin) - keep them apart and on edge. When they're not criticizing each other they're criticizing themselves, all the while binging on junk food in an attempt to salve the wounds inflicted by Leonard. Kate and Martin are practically crippled by their fears. She obsessively rewrites the same 10-year-old manuscript while he hides his 500-page draft in a drawer. They are a delightfully neurotic pair, and they both ultimately find their own voices and ways to get the better of Leonard. Their performances are at the head of the class.Izzy (Ngin) and Douglas (Jesse Hinson) follow opposite paths toward success. She may or may not be sleeping her way toward publication, and Douglas is blessed with a famous last name. His uncle is a noted author, so he has had no trouble gaining entrée to The New Yorker or to the elite writers' colonies of Yaddo and McDowell. While on paper their characters seem one-dimensional, Ngin and Hinson take Izzy and Douglas far beyond their comic stereotypes.