BWW Reviews: DC Premiere of SEMINAR at Round House Theatre Offers Exemplary Take on Less Than Stellar Material
There's something to be said about the power of a strong ensemble of actors who can make even the not-so-greatest play much more bearable. Such is the case with the Round House Theatre production of Theresa Rebeck's Seminar, which enjoyed a brief, almost six-month run on Broadway in 2011-2012 and received some critical acclaim, though incidentally no Tony Award nominations. The DC premiere offers a case study of how a group of committed actors working together as one cohesive unit, supported by strong direction, and accompanied by strong production values can make one forget that, in reality, the play one's watching is scant on plot, a consistent tone, and features five fundamentally unlikeable people.
This is not to say that Rebeck's ninety minute introduction to the world of an overpriced fiction writing seminar in a posh Upper West Side New York City apartment doesn't offer glimpses of a kind of brilliance. Through a series of seminars occurring over several weeks, she subtly and perceptively captures the struggle that artists have in maintaining self-confidence in their talents in the face of harsh criticism while at the same time questioning whether they really have what it takes to succeed while pursuing such a cutthroat career path. Likewise, she cuts through the surface level niceties that might be at play as aspiring artists interact with one another in a learning environment and also examines the darker, competitive undercurrents - exposing the lengths that one might go through to achieve greatness in the writing world. To this end, any creative types are likely to relate, but even those not immersed in an artistic endeavor might appreciate the insight into a little understood world.
Beyond this, most noteworthy is Rebeck's ability to consistently leverage the dialogue to fundamentally focus on the writer's love affair with language - an affair that ranges from the appreciable to the absurd. This happens without her treading into the territory of dry philosophical discourse. The word choices matter in this play, but the discussions about those choices do not undercut the telling of a story.
However, the several 'good' things found in the play do not change the fact that what we have, fundamentally, is a story of a group of four mostly unlikeable, ambitious writers seeking approval of their work from a bit of a has-been writer. They meet over a series of several weeks and receive feedback of varying sorts on their work until the $5000 seminar is abruptly cut short. Predictable interpersonal drama finds its way into the meetings, much of it of the sexual variety, which only adds to the fuel as the participants - and the teacher - bicker over whether a piece of writing (as well as the writer his or herself) has promise or not after cursory glances at the pages.
The common love affair with language and a shared need for success can only hold the group together for so long as turmoil - instigated at the tiniest or largest of remarks - rages on and sometimes reaches a climactic breaking point. The tenuous interpersonal situation in the room does not fundamentally change and neither does the widespread feelings of self-confidence mixed with doubt that impact all interactions. There's not much forward movement plot-wise, but rather a seemingly never-ending repetition of conflict scenarios (and the jokes featured in them), only with different people involved in the disputes. A contrasting final scene, in which we do get to briefly know at least two of the characters beyond the surface level, offers some emotional payoff. Here, one student and teacher reveal what's beyond the surface that drives them to have a love-hate relationship with writing, but it's too little too late.
Likewise, there's the issue of the script's tone. Put succinctly, it's uneven to the point of it being unclear as to what Rebeck is actually going for. At first, due to the heightened comedic edge, it appears to be a satire Think a funny monologue in which wannabe writer with family connections, Douglas, (Tom Story) intently discusses the "interiority" and "exteriority" of a location as if it's the deepest and most profound thing anyone has ever said even though he's saying nothing at all. Our suspicions that we are experiencing a somewhat heightened reality are confirmed even more so when Leonard (Marty Lodge) arrives to teach the group. He can make even the word "semicolon" cut deep and drip with disdain as he personally attacks over-educated spoiled, white, rich girl Kate (Katie deBuys). The criticisms are so over-the-top and Leonard is so, well mean, that what we are witnessing has to be in the name of a social commentary, right? The one-note and generic characterizations of each of the writers support this suspicion (besides Kate and Douglas, there's Izzy - played by Laura C. Harris - the sexually alluring one who will use all she has to get ahead, and Martin - played by Alexander Strain - who's a bit of an everyman slow to show his own cards, but quick to judge everyone else). Yet, somewhere after the first few scenes - as Leonard's past comes to light - the play takes on a darker, more realistic edge. Comedy is nearly replaced by angst-ridden drama in the last scene.
Overall, I found the play to be a case of the award-winning Rebeck trying too hard to write a script that really says something profound, yet is still quirky with commercial appeal. Yet, in the end it offers a mix of a NYC-based sitcom, a Lifetime Movie, and any kind of stage comedy that doesn't stand a remote chance to become a classic or even memorable beyond a year or two of its premiere.
Despite these inherent issues, the tight ensemble of actors at Round House does everything in its power to keep the audience's attention and delivers every line with unwavering energy and commitment. They also have chemistry in spades. Achieving laughs galore - even if I found the humor to be a bit crude and the jokes repetitive - they also hone in on the unique aspects of their characters and let that drive every movement, inflection, and reaction.
On Broadway, there was a bit of star-casting with Alan Rickman playing Leonard (he was later replaced by Jeff Goldblum), but here longtime Round House Theatre actor, Lodge - after a bit of an absence -gives a terrific performance, proving that star-casting this part isn't necessary. Both hilarious and terrifying, he offers a fine portrayal of Leonard, a man who has no need for social etiquette, but has layers hidden beneath what people see about him. DeBuys is perfectly needy and quirky as Kate and plays well off of all of her classmates. Harris and Story have a knack for comedy without veering into the campy territory. Rounding out the cast, Strain gives his usual nuanced performance that I've come to expect from him based on his many contributions to DC theatre. His thoughtful and revealing take on what be the most mysterious yet non-descript character in the play is one of main reasons why I found the final scene to be so rich and ultimately rewarding - even if on paper I shouldn't care much about his character and where he ends up.
Director Jerry Whiddon, who as the co-founder of the company and former producing artistic director is no stranger to the Round House Theatre, allows the play to move swiftly and incorporates some solid production elements that enhance the telling of the story. As has become the standard for Round House, the set is a standout. James Kronzer's beautiful rotating set captures a picture-perfect New York City apartment and a decrepit one with a commendable level of detail. Eric Shimelonis' compositions and sound design do not overwhelm the production, but enhance our anticipation of what comes next between scenes. Ivania Stack's costumes are well-suited to each character and what each represents. The uptight Kate, for example, is dressed more conservatively than say, Izzy. She makes it clear that Martin doesn't try too hard and highlights Leonard's artistic sensibilities.
This play is not one for the books, but the production itself may be worth some look.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission
"Seminar" plays at Round House Theatre Bethesda - 4545 East-West Highway in Bethesda, MD - through March 2, 2014. For tickets, call the box office at 240-644-1100 or purchase them online.