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Review: Fitfully Funny SEMINAR by The St. Louis Actors' Studio

When you're a creative person it's very important to have other people check out your work, not just for validation, but to give you good, honest feedback. It's a vital part of the process, because it's a way for you to tweak the things that are good to make them better, and also to cut the things that just don't work for whatever reason. Playwright Theresa Rebeck applies this notion to fiction writers in her work SEMINAR. The St. Louis Actors' Studio is currently presenting a production of this play, and it's an interesting, if only fitfully amusing, look at how a group of writers react to the various criticisms they receive once they've signed up and paid for seminar with someone who's achieved a modicum of success in his given field. I think this will mostly appeal to those prospective authors who are curious about how such a seminar would function, and I think the general public will find it fairly entertaining, but not nearly as funny, or serious, as it could be.

A magazine writer named Leonard is contracted to give a seminar to four scribes who have lofty expectations where their writing is concerned. Each approaches their craft from a different angle, and all are seeking Leonard's approval. But, anyone who has ever taken a seminar of any kind knows that it's still up to the individual to weigh the advice before they take the plunge, even if they've had some minor works published. In other words, you take what's said with a grain of salt, but you park your ego at the door, because you may not like what you hear, and the so-called "expert" could be wrong. After all, if they're so successful, why are they reduced to collecting fees for seminars?

Nathan Bush does fine work as the utterly pretentious Douglas, who speaks in such a pseudo-intellectual fashion that you can't help but be put off by his attitude. He's actually working on a piece for the New Yorker, but as Leonard points out after reading the short story, there's a "whorish" quality to his writing that would make him better suited for Hollywood. Then there's the attractive Izzy (nicely essayed by Alicia Smith) who hangs on Leonard's every word, even to the point of "sexing up" a piece she's working on in order to grab his attention. Taylor Pietz does a good job as Kate, who has been working on the same story for six years. She keeps re-writing it because she's been getting positive feedback from those who have read it, but that can also act to remove the immediacy, and dilute the final product. Pietz does her best in the role, but it's difficult to suspend my disbelief and imagine this slender, high cheek-boned beauty as a frumpy woman of some wealth, whose rent controlled apartment is used as the group's meeting place.

Jason Contini is sharp as Martin, who waits until he hears the criticisms that the others have to endure before offering up his own writing for review. He and Kate were classmates at one time, and since he uses all his cash on the seminar he winds up moving into her apartment. But, he has eyes for Izzy, and eventually they consummate their relationship in every room of the abode, while Kate seeks solace in junk food, after feeling rejected by Leonard and Martin. John Pierson delivers a terrific performance as Leonard. He's obviously just there to collect a paycheck, but his thoughts about their particular skills are generally right on the money. They may not appreciate what he has to say, but he's just looking at their contributions from a practical perspective. At times he doesn't even seem that interested in what he's even doing, and at one point he recounts a story he abhorred without realizing it was Kate's.

Elizabeth Helman directs with a sure hand, and each character is fairly well defined, but the script just isn't as engaging as it could or should be. The humor is at the level of a sitcom, and the drama is slight at best. Patrick Huber's set design gives the apartment setting a bit of flair with some especially nicely rendered paintings (by Cristie Johnston) that speak "class", and his lighting scheme is fairly straight forward because that's what the play requires. The costumes by Carla Landis Evans do a decent job of delineating each of the writers, but maybe some extra padding would have made her work with Pietz more believable.

SEMINAR is a good play, but not a great one. There are some gems of dialog to be found here and there, but it doesn't hang together as well as it might. Perhaps Rebeck should have work-shopped the play a bit more, or emphasized what comedic aspects the work has with more biting language. The St. Louis Actors' Studio's production is still worthy of your time and attention, and it continues through October 4, 2015.

Photo credit: John Lamb

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