Plays about writers and writing present major challenges for both audiences and playwrights. Because writing is such an internal process, full of grinding frustration and occasional exhilaration, it is a tough subject to portray on stage. Playwright and film/TV writer Theresa Rebeck makes a valiant but flawed assault on the subject in her play Seminar, which ran last year for six months on Broadway and recently opened at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles.
The setup is simple -- four aspiring writers have signed up for a writing seminar with publishing heavyweight Leonard (Jeff Goldblum) for the modest price of $5,000 for 10 sessions. (Already we're into shaky credulity -- how many aspiring writers can afford to pony up that kind of money for a seminar?) The writers are recognizable literary archetypes -- Kate (Aya Cash), the Bennington graduate who is obsessed with Jane Austen, Douglas (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe), the effete, pretentious Yadoo-ite , Izzy (Jennifer Ikeda), the sexy, ambitious literary climber, and Martin (Greg Keller) the talented, introverted "real" writer.
In a series of predictable scenes, the drunken and lecherous Leonard proceeds to trash the work of his students, sending them off into dizzying flights of despair and debauchery. In the end, we learn that Leonard is his own worst critic, and has in fact been hiding his own formidable work away from the eyes of readers and publishers for years. While there are some funny lines at the expense of the aspiring writers, the embittered teacher and the New York literary scene, the play is decidedly unsatisfying and predictable.
Rebeck seems to be spraying her considerable comedic arsenal at multiple targets, never really settling on one or another. The young writers are the object of ridicule for both their unrealistic ambitions and innocence, while the bitter teacher takes broadsides for his abuse of power. And the New York literary world takes it on the chin for its superficiality and fickleness. Unfortunately, none of this is really big news, nor is it of particular interest to most audiences. Rebeck barely acknowledges the current dire straits of traditional publishing and blithely assumes that all this chatter about the literary scene really matters much to anyone.
The fault is not entirely with playwright Rebeck, however. Jeff Goldblum's portrayal of the teacher is almost resolutely one-note, with the exception of a confessional scene at the end, which comes almost entirely out of the blue. The other actors do yeoman work as the aspiring writers, but are unable to escape from the archetypal chains in which they have been shackled. While Rebeck's earlier work was personal and idiosyncratic, this latest piece is jumbled, abstract and emotionally flat.