Snape, Snape, Severus Seminar!

"Fraud is a way of life in a capitalist culture - especially in the arts," muses one of the characters in Seminar, a new play by Teresa Rebeck now playing at the Golden Theatre. As we're introduced to four students enrolled in a writing seminar, each of whom aspires to transform their life and career in a costly but prestigious ten-week session, it quickly becomes apparent that the tools of the trade include not only pen and paper, but a thick skin as well. How much of yourself can you put into your writing and still feel comfortable with sharing it? Is a trust fund child with limited "real world" experience automatically ineligible to write anything of substance or worth? In a world where the more ridiculous the story, the better it sells, does truth matter?

Seminar's four pupils are all extremely driven to their craft, but each struggles with how much of themselves to reveal through their written words. Douglas (Jerry O'Connell), is the most outwardly pretentious of the bunch, too eager to write what he thinks other want to read. Izzy (Hettienne Park) is the token Asian, lively and exotic, but lacking in substance. Martin (Hamish Linklater) is bookish and shy, with hidden potential in his personal and professional life that is slowly peeled away over the course of the play. Kate (Lily Rabe) injects herself fully into her writing, but her enormous rent-controlled apartment (in which she plays host to the class) and defensive nature about her class privilege awaken the doubts of her teacher.

And who better to play instructor to these young writers in need of direction and reality than Severus Snape himself? As Leonard, Alan Rickman is wonderfully arrogant, dangerously pitiless, and deliciously heartless. Or so it seems. The experience of watching someone so commanding of the stage broached the same level as seeing a show starring Mark Rylance. It seemed as though, upon Mr. Rickman's command, the nails in the stage floor would have unscrewed themselves and timidly backed away in awe. Leonard has no hesitations in alternately ripping apart the work of a student who has spent six years working on the same story, or praising the work of a student who prolifically pours his soul into pages and pages of writing, but has never had the courage to show it to anyone until now. As two girls who consider ourselves to be writers in one sense or another, it was easy to identify with the anxiety of sharing your most personal writing with others, the pride that comes with compliments from a figure of respect, and the humiliation of the opposite.

Seminar is more of a "people sitting around and talking" play than a "lots of events transpire in a short amount of time" play, but Teresa Rebeck's script keeps things moving. We felt completely taken in by and engaged with her dialogue, which was mostly very conversational and flowed easily and naturally from the mouths of the actors. (The only exception, in my opinion, was the occasional lapse into an "I'm reciting dialogue!" mode that mostly occurred with the character of Izzy.) There were quite a few middle-to-high-brow references thrown in, but the mention of e-books and Somalia didn't feel overblown or exclusive to the audience.

Any problems we had with the production fell on the play itself, as the cast was superb. I was pleasantly surprised by Mr. O'Connell's work. As a pompous over-intellectual who continually refers to the "interiority and exteriority"of his previous writing environments, he proved himself anything but a ploy of stunt casting. Ms. Rabe was also a force, and it was fascinating to watch Kate battle to maintain self-confidence in her work and relationships with Martin and Leonard.

So, we were completely immersed in these characters, to some extent because we've muddled through the same issues as writers...and then the last two scenes happened, and I immediately felt disconnected from everything transpiring on stage. Without spoiling too much, I'm hard-pressed to remain a fan of stories that turn in the direction of "who's sleeping with who," and feel that there are often other ways of addressing the complexities of human nature. In addition, the questions left unanswered by the play are universal ponderings about the commercial value of art, which can never be answered objectively or definitively. Although that doesn't mean these questions are not worth addressing, I felt that Rebeck's writing discussed them in an obvious way. In particular, a line spoken by Kate towards the play's conclusion, stating in summary that "people are complex, and if you never understand that, you'll never be a good writer," felt like an unnecessary prod from the playwright to recognize the complexity of her characters.

It was at this point that Martin, who had been my favorite character throughout the play due to his insecurities, fell off the radar with which I could identify. Additionally, the value of life experience to a writer is thrown even more into question:

  • We never find out what Martin wrote - just that Leonard instantly thinks it's profound, and that Martin subsequently rejects his praise. This development was slightly confusing, as Martin sacrificed a lot to get into Leonard's class and was clearly looking for some form of approval before he shied away from it. Can you call yourself a writer if no one ever reads your work, or if you don't permit yourself to make a living from it? Can an artist "sell out" to break into the business, and then pull back and do it for the art? Martin didn't seem to think so. Us? We'd like to think so, but who are we to say?
  • Leonard's writing career was ruined by a supposedly false accusation of plagiarism, but now he's respected for traveling to war-torn countries and writing about the horrors there. When Kate writes - under the shield of fiction, of course - he shoots her efforts down, which implies that it's only worthy to tell the stories of the underdogs of the world, and that people don't want to read about rich, white people who complain about the difficulties of writing for a career. But, an extremely simplified summary of Seminar as a whole would be just that - a bunch of moderately well-off white people sitting around and complaining about the difficulties of being a writer. Hm...a conundrum.
Barring a few issues with the play's ending, though, we thoroughly enjoyed Seminar and its accessible yet thought-provoking nature. And after seeing it, we're even more excited for Smash (beginning February 6 on NBC) because Ms. Rebeck is the creator and a writer for the show. While Glee is more of a happy-go-lucky, gloss-over-sad-news-with-a-song look at the theatrical world, I'm interested to see if Smash provides a more cynical look at the industry, just as Seminar gave a harshly honest look into what it takes to be a "writer," and what it means to be considered one.


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