The extremely talented Theresa Rebeck gets a few crucial things right in Seminar, her new play about a group of young writers who’ve hired a once-lauded mainstream novelist, since fallen on harder career times (Alan Rickman), to deliver a series of private workshop seminars, in the apartment of one of the students, where they all gather weekly. And the group tutorial ain’t cheap. Ten sessions at five thousand dollars—per student. What Ms. Rebeck gets right is the notion of master mentor as monster—but not really. Only in the sense of being merciless in critique, and occasionally mind-bogglingly insensitive in delivery. But always, unsentimentally, goading his students to aim higher, whether they do or not, want to or nor or just plain realize it or not. This also encompasses the flip side of mentor as flawed human being, with an enigmatic moral center, a movable sense of boundaries and a sense of propriety that challenges even strongly-felt admiration.
Another thing the playwright gets right is making the play engage with the audience. Per usual, she’s created fun, funny, bright, sad characters to populate her stage, and her dialogue is as good as the game.
So what’s wrong?
For most people it won’t be much. Even for me it wasn’t that much. But as the colloq goes, it’s a thing, nonetheless, and it’s this.
Nobody much onstage is really behaving like a writer.
I’ve been in lots of writers’ enclaves, and I’ve been head of the class of more than a few, and however diverse and idiosyncratic each group is, none of the members were such transparently by-the-numbers archetypes. There’s the girl with Jane Austen pretensions that shield her from facing whether or not she has any kind of populist talent (Lily Rabe), there’s the innocently condescending new professional hanging around to brush up (Jerry O’Connell), there’s the slutty girl who isn’t beyond slutting to advance her career (Hetienne Park), and there’s the nerd who’s too noble to sell out (Hamish Linklater). Now I totally understand the concept of “reduction,” distilling a character to an essence for comprehensible dramatization when you have multiple characters and limited time to deal with them all; but there’s something about being a writer that usually defies accurate dramatization. To suggest merely one: A writer in a class tends to be struggling to solve an intimate relationship—that being the relationship with his project. He talks about it, jokes about it, laughs about it, suffers over it, and it’s as much a part of him, and the continuity of knowing him week after week, as his arms, legs, physique and personality; it’s inseparable. Which is to say: you get to know the project too, through the filter of its author. Which is to say: the project has to exist in intricate detail, because it’s a key reference point for the group at large. However, how often does a writer creating such a fictional group go ahead and create fully the projects his fictional writers are working on? Which you have to do in order to paint the picture convincingly.
That’s right. Thw writer—the real-life writer in control of the storytelling universe—rarely, rarely, rarely does.
Which is why the things most invented writing characters write are only alluded to. You hear about the type of thing a project may be, maybe you’re thrown a detail or two, but if you put a gun to the dramatist’s head and said, “Tell me in full detail what your characters are working on, or die,” and meant it, you’d wind up trying to figure out what to do with a corpse.
No, what you usually get in such circumstances are scenes in which the characters discuss anything but what they’re writing, or the writing is discussed briefly in abstract, meaningless terms (“Hey, that was really good, I liked it”; “I didn’t really believe the mother character”) meant to trigger discussions about their relationships to one another.
And writing classes just don’t work like that.
Which, by the way, is why writing about a writing class, as such classes really exist, is such a dull fucking proposition. For while what goes on is almost always fascinating to the participants, it has no dramatic context. Because all the personal shit, that’s what’s alluded to in side comments, abstractly and sometimes guardedly, and it’s rarely about class interrelationships, but about whatever private-life revelation may have informed the work of the writer in the spotlight at that moment. What people talk about in a writing class…is the writing. (Not incidentally, this hearkens to precisely the reason that the exploration of the creative process in Sunday in the Park With George is made to work dramatically. That painting is not an intellectual abstraction, the way a written work-in-progress is. It exists as an entity; even unfinished, we know what it will become. Sondheim and Lapine were able to draw upon their own experience while both extrapolating from and projecting into a fully finished work that was itself almost a character in the play.)
Thus, while Seminar is hugely entertaining, under the fine, clean direction of Sam Gold, it bears only glancing resemblance to real life. The cast does everything they can to make their archetypes rounded, full-blooded people and not surprisingly, they’re at their best when they’re guarded and protective, because that’s when you get the authenticity of a writer trying to solve a problem internally. Once they really get into it, they’re just characters in a sitcom.
An intelligent and thoughtful sitcom, to be sure. One I liked a great deal, once I relinquished any expectation that it would really explore process. One I’d even advise you to see, if you have the time, the dough and the interest.
it ain’t “Finishing the Hat”…
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