There’s always danger when writers lampoon the publishing world: You never believe their wünderkinds are so wonderful, and they tend to burlesque bad writing beyond credibility. The acid test comes when someone reads aloud a passage that is purportedly genius or dreck. Rebeck wisely curtails recitation of manuscripts. Instead we watch as Rickman’s Leonard—being paid $20K to teach a ten-week intensive course at the Upper West Side apartment of Kate (Rabe)—as he pages through student submissions. A curl of the lip, a twitch of the eyebrow, a flare of the nostrils: These nonverbal signals speak volumes. Out of small gestures and that slurry, violoncello delivery, Rickman crafts one of the most vivid, dimensional stage monster in years: a burnt-up monument to cynicism and appetite who beds his students when not pulverizing their egos. Rickman gives the comic performance of the season.
SEMINAR Broadway Reviews
Reviews of Seminar on Broadway. See what all the critics had to say and see all the ratings for Seminar including the New York Times and More...
Rickman is clearly very good at playing arrogant and sneering, but he shows a touchingly vulnerable side while also delivering a lacerating monologue about what the publishing industry does to young talent and how words can really hurt. Rabe has a coltish immaturity that ages into weary pride by the end, and Linklater is excellent as the nerdy — but needy — wannabe intellectual who is really just a boy. Who turns out to be the best writer of the bunch? That's easy — Theresa Rebeck.
Thanks to these performances, Seminar proves an enriching study.
Bottom line: A slender but enjoyable play about the courage and self-knowledge required of any artist, with an ace ensemble led by Alan Rickman in fine form.
Teaching the young proves a treacherous business for both tutor and students in "Seminar," Theresa Rebeck's dark comedy about a literary lion and the young writers he eats for breakfast at his private seminars. Alan Rickman is heaven-sent as the sexy, sneering, snarling literary legend who condescends to tutor four aspiring novelists who have paid through the nose for the privilege of being abused. But these clever youngsters know how to play this intellectual contact sport, and even though everyone stops short of drawing blood, the civilized games they play are enormously entertaining.
As for our star of contemporary letters, his prickly exterior inevitably hides deep-seated anxieties while his tough approach yields positive results — he can line-edit and give life lessons! Yet you can overlook the formulaic plotting because the witty Rebeck hits plenty of bull’s-eyes, most notably when poking fun at literary Manhattan’s cutthroat world. And with actors of this caliber delivering the goods, it’s easy to just sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.
Finally there comes a turning point, about an hour and 15 minutes into the show, when Mr. Rickman is allowed to embody something more than brisk intellectual sadism. Handed a really good piece of writing by one of his students, Leonard responds with a quietly potent mix of antagonism, humility, fear and something like joy. Of course this mélange of feelings, magnificently orchestrated by Mr. Rickman, is arrived at after Leonard has only glanced at the first couple of pages of a vast manuscript. But for the first time I felt an authentic rush of pleasure and the exhilaration of being reminded that in theater, art comes less from landing lines than in finding what lies between them.
There are consolations, chief among them Rickman, who wisely understates Leonard's prickly intelligence, colossal ego, and enormous self-loathing. The actor is absolutely delicious as Leonard slides a metaphorical knife in so smoothly and off-handedly that the victim can't even feel it. Watch Rickman as Leonard delivers a blistering assessment of a student's bleak future. Only gradually does it become apparent that the teacher is speaking about himself. This is the kind of part that could have been played with fireworks, but Rickman sounds subtle and beautiful grace notes. Linklater gives spine to Martin's neediness, Rabe lights a fire under the seemingly placid Kate, O'Connell lends depth to the jerky Douglas, and Park gives Izzy a refreshing spark.
This is healthy, even inspirational. Equally bold, but more distressingly improbable, is the play itself -- a slim, 100-minute pseudo-serious piece about the twists and turns of nasty creative mentoring.
The play does not progress well. Douglas and Izzy more or less disappear. Kate's trajectory makes no sense at all. And by the end, it turns into a histrionic confrontation between Leonard and Martin chock-full of plot twists.
The truth about Seminar?' Well, the young writers' banter initially crackles, as they humorously toss around words like "reductive," "associative connection," and "interiority." But other times their language becomes surprisingly flat, with too many seminar-discussion utterances of "I liked it" or "It's good."
Yes, you have seen this one before, the play/movie/novel about a debauched, embittered genius wreaking emotional havoc all around him until one talented voice breaks through the armor. Doubtless you’ll see it again. Rarely, however, will you see such toxic zingers delivered with more elan. Rickman and this extraordinary quartet, paced with feverish enthusiasm by Sam Gold, bring sexiness, verve and artistry to a tried-and-true formula. They come very close to making it seem seem fresh.
If, in the end, Seminar belongs to Hamish Linklater, it's not only because the actor does such a good job of creating, sustaining, and quietly intensifying Martin's full personality, building to the play's one honest dramatic climax. It's also because Rebeck has taken the care to make Martin a person, not a just a plot piece. Leonard would have something barbed to say about him — and then approve. C+