Theresa Rebeck is a smart, hip writer, with an ability to create ensemble pieces á la “Carnage,” as we previously witnessed in “Poor Behavior” and now in “Seminar.” What all of these works depict, in a kind of high-brow soap opera-ish manner, are alert, with-it and well-to-do people being tested and coming apart at the seams.
Four college-age young people – Aya Cash as Kate, Jennifer Ikeda as Izzy, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe as Douglas, and Greg Keller as Martin – have shelled out $5,000 each for a kind of writers’ boot camp with Leonard (Jeff Goldblum), a once-promising novelist whose star has since dimmed. Whether it’s through bitterness or acumen and insight, Leonard rakes his aspirants over the hot coals.
The play is somewhat enamored of itself, and lingers on the metaphoric torture scenes as it skates merrily to its denouement. And why not? The four young writers provide us with chuckles galore (sometimes laughing with them, sometimes at) and together they’re like a string quartet in perfect sync.
Douglas – ah, smug Doug – nestles contentedly within his pedigree connections, but Leonard pegs him for a hack, fit only for Hollywood. Meticulous Kate, reworking a short story about Jane Austin for six years, gets the worst of it: Leonard savagely mauls her work, and then goes back to maul it some more.
Inflamed by his utter disregard of her work, Kate takes her revenge by concocting a very different kind of tale, which she then claims was written by someone else. When Leonard rhapsodizes over it she gloats triumphantly, perhaps not realizing that it was actually his prodding that shoved her outside of her comfort zone. In other words, he seems to have tricked her into coming up with something that didn’t so much trick him as trick herself.
Izzy, by contrast, has learned when to substitute the lap dance for the laptop, and she’s not shy about letting Leonard know that the store is open. There may be too much emphasis on overt sexuality in “Seminar,” but taken as a visual metaphor for pent-up and/or released passions we can wave it through the turnstile.
If Izzy has put us in a tizzy, Martin holds back and doesn’t share his work with Leonard until late in the play. Martin has an incredulity about him that is hallmark Woody Allen to these eyes, but we are led to believe that he is a master in the making.
The majority of “Seminar” takes place in the spacious, brightly-lit Upper West Side New York apartment that belongs to Kate’s family. Towards the end, the play shifts to Leonard’s darkened literary cave (floor to ceiling bookcases), and what ensues almost seems like the opening salvo of another, more intense drama. Manuscripts are perused too quickly for their merits to be accurately ascertained, but let’s not hold the play’s veracity too close to the lamp. “Seminar” is slick, with sanded-off corners, but it is amusing throughout, intellectually engaging, acted with finesse, and given lively direction by Sam Gold. Playwright Theresa Rebeck should be in everyone’s vocabulary.
Seminar is onstage through Nov. 18 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles in the Music Center. Performances, Tues. through Fri. at 8, Sat. at 2 and 8, Sun. at 1 and 6:30 p.m. Exceptions: added shows today (Thursday) and Thurs., Nov. 15, at 2 p.m. No 6:30 p.m. shows on Nov. 11 or 18. Tickets, $20 to $110. Call (213) 972-4400 or go to CenterTheatreGroup.org. ER