By Gordon Meyer
“There’s real energy here and a sexual edge that has me on board.”
As soon as would be novelist Douglas (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe). began talking about his devotion to “interiosity” and “exteriosity” in the new play SEMINAR by Theresa Rebeck, I knew I was in the right place. Dating back to my film school days, I often encountered people who had this pompous way of talking about what true storytelling is all about using all sorts of fancy language intended to make the listener think the speaker was exceptionally intelligent, when it was simply showing off. In SEMINAR, a quartet of twenty something scribes have pooled their funds a twelve week private writing seminar with a celebrated author who is supposed to be some kind of genius. Needless to say, they don’t exactly get the kind of nurturing support from Leonard (Jeff Goldblum) that they expected.
SEMINAR is more of a character study than a play. Although there is a story line, it feels episodic in nature. The scenes follow each other chronologically, but the transitions from scene to scene often feel almost arbitrary and non-organic in their flow. In spite of this flaw, I found the play to be very entertaining, thanks to both some very witty dialog from Ms. Rebeck and exceptional performances by both Goldblum and Aya Cash, who plays Kate, the young woman whose massive rent controlled New York apartment serves as the main setting for the play.
Kate’s story is the first one shared with the class and Leonard nor only humiliates her by the brutal way he tears it apart after reading only the first few sentences, he continues to rag on her story as a textbook example of bad writing that “nobody gives a shit about” throughout much of the play. But Kate is both stronger and more resourceful than she appears and comes up with a clever way to redeem her self esteem. Cash gives the role a very real sense of humanity, vulnerability and subtle sexiness that I really enjoyed.
Near-Verbrugghe and Jennifer Ikeda as Douglas and Izzy give good performances, but nothing that blew me away, though to hold your own opposite Goldblum in front of over 1500 people is no small feat. The character of Martin (Greg Keller) is ultimately revealed as the protagonist of the play. Martin is almost as acerbic as Leonard, but is so protective of the writing he seems to be passionate about that he doesn’t want anyone to see it. While watching Keller’s portrayal, I kept thinking of the character Leonard from the sitcom THE BIG BANG THEORY, who Keller seems to channel. Lo and behold I’m not alone. Variety’s Bob Verini got the same impression. But even with that similarity, I bought it.
As for Goldblum, in spite of his star billing, while Leonard is certainly the catalyst for everything that happens in the show, he’s not the central character. This is more of an ensemble piece and Goldblum’s stage time is a lot briefer than I had expected. But he delivers his profanity laced dialog with split second timing and conviction, including a powerful monologue near the end of the play.
Writing can be a frustrating and lonely task, filled with emotional angst, vulnerability, professional compromises and boatloads of rejection, often ugly in tone or inference. But, when it works, it’s also exhilarating. While I have no idea how autobiographical SEMINAR is, I can tell you that, between my own writing experiences and those of several friends of mine who are professional writers and authors, she hits the nail on the head in her play, including some of the digs at Hollywood which the opening night audience ate up with a spoon.
Although it’s a flawed play, it’s also a very entertaining and insightful one – and as I said above, a play that every working writer or aspiring writer ought to see.
SEMINAR plays at the Ahmanson through November 18. For more information, go to http://www.centertheatregroup.org/tickets/Seminar/