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S.F. Playhouse's 'Seminar' is graded C-

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San Francisco Playhouse's "Seminar"

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San Francisco Playhouse (http://sfplayhouse.org/sfph/seminar/) is lucky I am not like Leonard, the central character in Theresa Rebeck's "Seminar," which opened a five-week run on Saturday.

If I were, this would be a savage, obscenity-laced condemnation of the play - and that would be wrong, just as the play is in many ways. This is a rare, surprising misstep in the Playhouse's exceptional run of hits.

As portrayed manfully by Charles Shaw Robinson, Leonard is a caricature of a literary bad boy, a famed, unhappy editor, who is giving a private seminar in writing to a select group of four, at $5,000 a pop. Assuming that there are struggling young writers who could (and would) put up the money, would they also put up with Leonard's endless vitriol about them, everybody, and everything?

Mildly amusing and catching fire only a couple of times during its 90-minute run, "Seminar" presents what is supposed to be an insider view of literature and writers, but on what planet?

The four victimized and hapless "students" are mostly cardboard characters, the actors - just like Robinson - doing their best to put some flesh on the formula skeletons.

The biggest challenge is for Natalie Mitchell, whose role as Izzy, a none-too-bright nymphomaniac, seems to have remained half-written before the production opened. There is much more life - although no real substance - to Kate (Lauren English), who has some surprises up her sleeve, but the character makes no lasting impression.

The most shaded character is Martin, played by James Wagner, whose childish histrionics and participation in the play's hollow happy ending require great effort.

Patrick Russell's character as Douglas begins with spouting generalities to a supposedly comic effect, and "develops" into nothing much at all.

"Seminar" is directed by Amy Glazer, the set is by company artistic director Bill English. There is an advance warning on the website about "adult language and suggestive situations," but no mention of empty intellectual and emotional calories.

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