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Welcome to the sausage factory: “Seminar” satirizes the literary world

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Seminar at World’s Stage Theatre Company

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Literature is surely some kind of magic. Writers transmute their mundane experiences, distilling them into black letters that transport us into their exquisitely sensitive minds: a knowledge that can be more intimate than sex. But writers are no less flawed than anyone else, and there’s bound to be stinky earth somewhere under their lofty visions. That’s exactly the ground that Theresa Rebeck explores in her 2011 play Seminar, which is currently in production by the World’s Stage Theatre Company. Rebeck introduces us to four sorcerer’s apprentices, nervous and excited as they wait the arrival of their master: a high-powered novelist with the power to make careers, who only takes four students at a time, to be initiated into the mysteries of the writer’s craft—at $5000 apiece for ten weekly sessions.

As the aspiring novelists seem to be a fair sampling of New York literati kids—smart, self-indulgent, goofy, and priviledged—those inclined to schadenfreude might well begin drooling in anticipation of the spectacle of precious young egos being crushed like marshmallows under a speeding subway train. They will not be disappointed. The teacher, Leonard, a jaded, fiftyish yarn-spinning, world-traveling misanthrope, seems to be just the narcissistic jerk they deserve, and the ship of fools sets sail, playing out the most awful permutations of the “writer’s workshop:” jealousy, defensiveness, domination, rebellion, seduction and betrayal. It’s a comedy of manners, as much as those of Pope’s Eighteenth-century, for a time when society has grown so complex and rule-bound that the only thing to do is feed on it’s own ridiculousness.

Director David Bohn crafts a lively, spirited and neatly-choreographed show; the actors playing the students bring out lots of character-revealing expressiveness, treading a line between naturalism and caricature; and if they somewhat lack the brittle gloss of East Coast entitlement, they make up for it in warmth and humanity. Samantha Martinson creates a credibly multifaceted persona in the rich girl who hosts the seminar in daddy’s rent-controlled Upper West side apartment. She’s been re-working the same story for five years. We should hate her, but she’s actually one of the more sympathetic characters. James Carrington brings flair to his role of a pretentious aesthete with family connections; while Gretchen Mahkorn avoids cliches as a girl who seems to view writing and sex as interchangeable commodities. David Rothrock convinces us that he’s naive enough to willingly blow his rent money on the chance to sit at the master’s feet.

But Bryce Lord as Leonard in a subtle, nuanced and honest performance, clearly walks away with the show. We can see the artist behind the fire-breathing dragon. It’s to the whole ensemble’s credit that the play’s tensest moments are when Leonard silently reads their manuscripts, casually dropping pages on the floor, as they sit, their beating hearts in his hands, scanning his face, for the minutest sign of their worthiness. In the show’s most devastating speech, Leonard breaks down the gifted Martin’s future: a bitter, bleak, but ruthlessly realistic précis of a gifted writer’s career in today’s “literary industry.”

Toward the end of the play, excerpts from Jack Kerouak, Christopher Marlowe, and Jane Austin remind us of the glory of literature, and cleverly set up the play’s resolution, which comes with a few surprise twists. But these tastes of great writing highlight a flaw. The playwright clearly knows her topic—maybe a little too well. It would be nice if we heard some of the writer’s voices from their stories; as it is, we have to take Leonard’s word for it that they are “crappy,” “good” or “whorish.” For a play with literature at it’s heart, it’s nearly empty of literature, which gives that heart a hollow ring. Plus, this production, at least, assumes that we’ll find the character’s stakes as high as they obviously do (if it didn’t it might be a lot funnier; this is not a laugh-out-loud comedy).

This is the third show World’s Stage has produced this summer. In ambition, production values, high-quality acting, and integrity, this company recalls the late, lamented Youngblood Theatre. But while Youngblood’s style was quirky and lyrical, World’s Stage chooses much grittier naturalistic scripts with a distinctly bitter edge. They certainly wouldn’t be performed by most other companies in town, and for that we owe them our gratitude. And if, in Shakespeare’s words, theater is “the abstract chronicles of our times,” it may be the theater our times deserve.

Seminar
by Theresa Rebeck
The World’s Stage Theatre Company

runs through August 31
Tenth Street Theatre
628 North 10th St.
tickets $18, students $15

"Contains adult language and content"

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