The classroom setting in Seminar, Theresa Rebeck’s glibly synthetic, audience-stroking comedy about creativity and its discontents, is a spacious living room in the kind of sprawling, rent-controlled, jealousy-inducing Upper West Side apartment that audiences will congratulate themselves for having seen in a thousand New Yorker cartoons. The teacher, Leonard (Alan Rickman), a faded Famous Author hired to provide private writing lessons to four ambitious students paying $5,000 for the privilege, is the kind of amusingly embittered, parrying, preening, bon mot-dropping middle-aged intellectual a–hole that audiences will, likewise, be flattered to recognize from a thousand Broadway and Off Broadway plays. (Try Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage and Art, for starters.)
The four students are also types recognizable from New Yorker cartoons and Off-Broadway plays. And NBC sitcoms too. There’s the well-connected, entitled Douglas (Jerry O?Connell), the sexually aggressive Issy (Hetienne Park), the insecure, eating-ice-cream-out-of-a-tub Kate (Lily Rabe), and Martin, the angry one with a load of chips on his shoulder (Hamish Linklater). Rebeck moves her five characters around as the students compete for approval and advancement in combinations as over-determined as they are arbitrary. Meanwhile, aphorisms and clever put-downs fly. Someone is ”relentlessly talent-free.” Someone else, whose work is deemed hollow, ”should think about Hollywood.” Names are dropped: Tobias Wolff, Frank Conroy, the artists’ colonies Yaddo and MacDowell. There’s not one moment of risk.
Seminar has little of depth or authenticity to say about the struggle to put words in an order that says something true. But it does have Alan Rickman reigning over the production with his distinctive voice and imperious visage. No one delivers verbal abuse with more panache. Indeed, Seminar is almost too easy a gig for the star who, in the cramped staging of director Sam Gold (Circle Mirror Transformation) does a lot of entering, heaping plummily accented abuse in the name of brutal honesty, and then exiting the scene. Everyone moves around the stage a lot in an imitation of forward motion.
As for the other four other performances, each reflects the limitations imposed by the playwright. Park and O’Connell get the worst of the bargain since (to use a word lambasted early in the dialogue) there is no ”interiority” to either Izzy or Douglas. The distinctive Rabe (an outstanding Portia opposite Al Pacino in The Merchant of Venice last season), is impressively resourceful in filling out the personality of a young woman oddly designated by the playwright as alternately a princess (the apartment belongs to her family), a feminist, a sexually frustrated Bridget Jones type, a bad writer, and a good one. (In the final scene she’s someone else entirely — although who, exactly, is impossible to figure out.)
If, in the end, Seminar belongs to Hamish Linklater, it’s not only because the actor does such a good job of creating, sustaining, and quietly intensifying Martin’s full personality, building to the play’s one honest dramatic climax. It’s also because Rebeck has taken the care to make Martin a person, not a just a plot piece. Leonard would have something barbed to say about him — and then approve. C+
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 800-432-7250)