Lee Alexander writes:
It’s hard not to think of Alan Rickman as Severus Snape, curl-lipped and leering behind a smoking cauldron as Harry Potter’s ambiguously evil Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor. In Thersea Rebeck’s new comedy, Seminar (which opened on Sunday at the Golden Theatre), Rickman is once again in command of the classroom, abandoning his robe and wand for a somewhat more mundane task: instructing four twentysomethings on the craft of writing a novel.
Though Rickman’s character, the famous writer Leonard, snidely remarks that “the novel has fallen on hard times,” the audience is secure in the knowledge that the play has not. During the show—which gives us a sense of what highbrow reality television would be like if it existed—we watch with delight as the four hopefuls are eviscerated, one by one, under the cutting critiques of their fiercely disparaging instructor.
Seminar isn’t just a play about writing; it’s also a play about power. Director Sam Gold has a firm grasp on its subtleties in his staging and highlighting of the shifting power dynamics of this highly contentious and incestuous writing circle.
This is ensemble acting at its best, though there are two actors whose performances rise to Rickman’s star power. Kate (played skillfully by the talented Lily Rabe), an affluent young woman whose beautifully designed Upper West Side apartment serves as the group’s meeting spot, is dismissed by Leonard as a rich-girl feminist with an Emily Dickson complex (he dismisses Dickinson’s poetry as “words like lumps of shit”). Rabe has an expert sense of comedic timing, and is a joy to watch as she proves the ultimate literary cliché: Never judge a book—or, in this case, character—by its cover.
As Martin, Hamish Linklater perfectly captures the intensity and undeniable charm of a character whose self-doubt and lack of confidence make him a natural underdog in this cadre of big personalities and oversized egos.
Not everyone in the audience will share the dream of writing the great American novel, but we all face criticism in the pursuit of our own endeavors. Often, of course, the critical figure in the way of our dreams is not a dismissive authority but our own insecurity. After all the vicious insults and all the bruised egos, Seminar reminds us, it’s how we respond to criticism that informs our success. As Leonard warns: “If it gets in, you’re doomed.”
Lee Alexander has an MA in Text and Performance Studies from King’s College/RADA and currently lives in Brooklyn.
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