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BWW Reviews: Circuit's SEMINAR Should Be Required Viewing

There's something intrinsically dramatic about a formidable artist/instructor who, because of whatever circumstances, finds that he or she has to step down a rung on the ladder of fame in order not to slip from that ladder altogether. It isn't necessarily a new theme that Theresa Rebeck tackles in the acid-etched comedy SEMINAR, directed by Irene Crist and currently running at Circuit Playhouse. While watching it, I was reminded of other works dealing with artists who, out of necessity, must share their genius (and sharpen their verbal talons) on eager, ambitious upstarts. Not too long ago, there was a production of John Logan's RED, about the artist Mark Rothko and his fictional assistant. Nor should we forget Terrence McNally's MASTER CLASS, with diva Maria Callas holding a voice master class with students trembling under her aura. Other, similar (if fictional) titles leap to mind: Consider that holy terror from THE PAPER CHASE, "Professor Kingsfield" (John Houseman), intimidating Timothy Bottoms' frustrated law student. To these master instructors we can now add the imperious "Leonard" (deliciously played by Michael Detroit, who, as a real-life instructor, has an innate understanding of the interplay between teacher and student), a famous novelist who has been to the well of inspiration once too often and is now (for $5000 per student) reluctantly willing to train his weary eyes on material that more often than not elicits blistering barbs of criticism; and a varied and pretentious lot they are - the affluent "Kate" (whose spacious and expensive apartment furnishes the setting for the seminar meetings, and whose six-year struggle with a story is rather like a plane that bumps along a runway and can't quite take flight); the name-dropping "Douglas," who has written something fit for THE NEW YORKER (ordinarily an impressive feat - except when Leonard derides its "detached intelligence"); the opportunistic "Izzy," who isn't beyond parlaying her particular affinity for sex into a form of self-promotion; and, finally, the disproving "Martin," whose intellectual probity causes him to roll his eyes at the pretentiousness of people like Douglas.

All of this could have taken a quite serious turn in a different play, but here the fun lies in watching these egotistical personalities collide - not only with the caustic and knowing Leonard, but with each other. Leonard, in fact, can match THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER'S "Sheridan Whiteside" for verbal acuity. He's rather like a glowering, mischievous spirit, dropping to the floor pages redolent with the students' "sweat and tears," wielding a pen like a pin, popping the inflated egos of his charges as if they were balloons. Sustained by liquor and rolling his eyes to the heavens, Leonard rips into their pretensions as if he were Jack the Ripper at a Texas cheerleaders' convention.

I like Ms. Rebeck's dramatic structure, with swift scenes highlighting Leonard's assessment of a particular writer - it's rather like knocking down one domino at a time; and the first to fall is the uptight Kate. Though she has tried over several years to bring her one opus to fruition, Leonard can't bring himself to venture beyond the first semicolon - and she is devastated. (A subsequent scene proceeds with hilarity, as Leonard, a week later, fails to recognize that the disappointing work he loathed the week before belongs to her, and Julia Masotti's "Kate" makes expert use of those expressive, large eyes.) Yet, Kate is not quite defeated: The "worm will turn" before the Circuit curtain falls. More appealing to the libidinous Leonard is the breast-baring, free-spirited "Izzy," whose talent gets a boost (and Leonard's attention) because of its sexual energy (Morgan Howard is most enjoyable in the role, and I am sad that she will soon bid adieu to Memphis stages). As for "Douglas," Leonard recognizes talent - but not the kind of talent that will ever satisfy Douglas' egotistical self-image (Leonard makes pointed use of the word "whore"). As the fastidiously attired Douglas hears this criticism, Gregory Szatkowski's performance - almost wordless as he takes the verbal "blows" "on the chin" and recognizes the truth of them - is oddly moving. Then there is the tightly wound "Martin," so frustrated by Leonard's blistering tirades against his fellow aspirants and reproachful of Leonard's having horizontally replaced him with the alluring Izzy, that he refuses to let Leonard read his novel (though, ironically, it is the one work that stirs the writer's soul within the teacher).

While Leonard is not reticent about spewing critical bile at his students, he is not without his own shortcomings, which come to light toward the play's conclusion. Yet, despite it all, he is ultimately able to help each of these young people; he recognizes their weaknesses and their strengths, and he will steer each of his writers in a direction that will play to their best advantage.

Michael Detroit has long been one of Memphis' most welcome performers - more often than not taking character roles in musicals (one of the fathers, for example, in THE FANTASTICKS, or the "Engineer" in MISS SAIGON). Here, he has a rich, fascinating role, and he is brilliant. When he describes what he sees as the disappointing future of one of the aspirants, he essentially is recounting his own failures, both as a person and a writer.

If there is anything that defies "a willing suspension of disbelief" in the play, it's the way in which assessments are reached about a work without reading beyond a few lines; however, that's probably just "dramatic license." We never know what any of these efforts are about, but that really doesn't matter. What is important are the reactions and interplay of characters as they cast their eyes downward on their "feet of clay" and find themselves still standing as they face the truth about themselves as writers and as people.

I love intelligent and electrifying dialogue, and Ms. Rebeck's play has this in abundance. Evidently, this was largely true for the audience who shared the Sunday matinee with me, laughed with delight in all the right places, and offered a well-deserved standing ovation at the end of the performance. Irene Crist must be in a kind of director's heaven working with such a script and such an ensemble. The Scenic Design by Andrew Mannion, with its shelves of books underscoring the importance and the gift of words, is tasteful and detailed; and Costume Designer Caleb Blackwell has attired each of the characters in clothes that appropriately mirror their personalities (Ms. Howard's black stockings could be holdovers from Jerre Dye's transvestite doctor in the recent ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW). Through June 21.

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From This Author Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)