A Writer’s Play

Douglas is the son of a successful playwright, given to soliloquies on just about anything, from the convergence of the exteriority and the interiority of a writers’ colony he’s frequented to the death of postmodernism and the rise of magic realism.  He can write but is intellectually constipated.  Sexy Izzy knows she needs connections to supplement her writing skills, so she chooses her friendships … and romances … to provide them.  The down-to-earth (and financially struggling) Martin sees writing as sacred, which makes him afraid to read his work to anyone.  He’s drawn to Izzy’s overt sexuality and infuriated by Douglas’ pedantic rants.   And plain Kate has been working on the same short story for six years.  The four talented but unpublished writers have paid $5000 for a Seminar by author, editor and writing coach, Leonard, who is said to work wonders with struggling writers.

Teresa Rebeck’s new comedy, Seminar, opens with the four writers nervous about Leonard’s arrival and with good reason.   Leonard is a jaded, arrogant and imperious, seemingly more interested in talking about his travels in dangerous regions of the world or coming on to Izzy than teaching.  In the first session, he dismisses Kate’s short story as a soul-sucking waste of words after reading one sentence.  The group, and Martin in particular, come to Kate’s defense, prompting Leonard to call Martin a pussy for being afraid to say what he really thinks.  Tension between Martin and Leonard grows when Izzy leaves with the teacher after he complements her work.   And so it goes, the four students trying to cope with Leonard’s brutal criticism while jealousies, alliances and romances rise and fall between them.  Gradually, the young writers benefit from Leonard’s pointed criticism … and when one of the four turns out to be very promising, we get to see the love of craft that remains under Leonard’s weary worldliness.

I loved this play.   It was well cast and the young writers seemed real, as did their reactions to Leonard’s criticism.  I’d seen each of the personalities in my writing classes. The tendency of the writers resist serious criticism of each others work, instead forming a mutual admiration society, is something I talked about in my post, Reading Aloud.  It seems to take strong egos to bring serious criticism, and while Leonard’s was over the top, it made the point nicely.  Martin even gives a Dog Shit Speech.  In a review of the New York production, Ben Brantley of the Times complained that Seminar seems to be almost nothing but shortcuts, and that includes the ways it defines and manipulates its characters. Full of efficiently mapped reversals and revelations, the play feels as if it were written according to some literary equivalent of a mileage-saving GPS device.  Clever, that GPS bit, but I found the manipulations believable given the goal of condensing five weeks of the seminar into less than two hours.  And it was exactly those twists and turns that made the play funny.   Sometimes, I think critics lack the ability to sit back and laugh.  I think they are writing their review as they are watching instead of viewing the play as entertainment.

As Seminar came to an end, I wondered if it was A Writer’s Play, one that you had to be a writer to fully appreciate, although the enthusiastic response of the audience should have told me it wasn’t.  I asked Muri, Did you enjoy it?  She did, so I asked, Did it give you a glimpse inside my head?  Yes, she said, a little but I think I already knew most of what’s in there.   It is very nice to have someone know you that well.  So, if you are a writer and you get a chance to see this play, do it.  Listen to me, not Ben Brantley.  Take someone you love with you and give them a glimpse inside your had.  You won’t be sorry.  In the meantime, be sure to take a look at some funny scenes here, on the Ahmanson website.

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2 Comments on “A Writer’s Play”

  1. territerri Says:

    It sounds like so much FUN! When you first mentioned this play, I wasn’t imagining a comedy (even though you might have said that it was.) I linked to the website and watched the clips and laughed! If I ever have the chance, I will definitely see this.

  2. That play sounds FANTASTIC and I would most certainly go see it, if I lived there!

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