Theater Review: Seminar @ Spirit Square
By Perry Tannenbaum
We all know that politics, connections, and strategic socializing often figure into securing Hollywood production budgets and achieving Hollywood stardom. We’re apt to think of the proverbial casting couch as Tinseltown’s exclusive domain. But can the same tools also work in the literary world, where writers aspire to lucrative publication and enduring prestige?
You better believe it, playwright Theresa Rebeck tells us in Seminar, a surprisingly steamy — and sometimes dark — comedy that brings Three Bone Theatre to Spirit Square for the first time. The veneers of artistry, aesthetics, and collegiality rapidly disintegrate in successive encounters with a famed writer and his very exclusive fiction-writing class. Izzy, Douglas, Martin, and Kate all scrape together $5,000 apiece for the privilege of being praised, critiqued, berated, and mentored by Leonard in weekly sessions at Kate’s posh Upper West Side apartment.
Kate has been honing her story about a narrator obsessed with Jane Austen for so long that cleverness and craft are all that remain. Izzy’s writing, on the other hand, is so laced with sensuousness and sexuality that it rouses mighty urges in every man in the room — and she knows exactly what she’s doing. Douglas arrives with a fine literary pedigree, key connections, and a manuscript that is already under consideration by The New Yorker.
Martin has had the toughest time scraping up the necessary cash for tuition, so tough that he has been evicted from his apartment. He wouldn’t need to pay any rent if he could crash in one of Kate’s many extra bedrooms, but he’s oblivious to the possibility that Good Samaritan impulses might not be the primary reason why Kate says yes. There are more than a couple of things that Martin is oblivious to, and he’s very guarded about showing his writing to anyone, so he’s a useful person for Rebeck to have around for expositional purposes. So much must be explained to him until he becomes central to the story.
Meanwhile, it’s Izzy and her serial seductions that stir the pot and drive the plot. There’s actually an admirable amount of balance in Rebeck’s script, but in the Broadway production directed by Sam Gold, the important character seemed to be movie star Alan Rickman as Leonard, while the students often seemed to be mundane minnows swimming in his orbit.
Leonard is a revered writer who is still globetrotting on reporting assignments despite his literary decline, so Rickman’s aging celebrity was not amiss. And Rebeck delves so deeply into the mysteries of teaching and mentoring writers that our fluctuating assessment of Leonard’s efficacy emerges as more important than any other subject Seminar tackles. But Rickman’s aura, for better or worse, made Leonard appear above the politics, the exploitation, and the literary logrolling.
With Michael Harris in the role (and probably in the best form of his life), the fault lines in Leonard’s character — and his redeeming humanity — are more readily evident. Three Bone director Steven Levine doesn’t have the luxury of imposing a huge gulf between Leonard and his students from a celebrity standpoint, so we also discover who Leonard’s costar is a bit earlier in the game. Rickman’s fame — and stage presence — really didn’t allow for an equal in the Broadway production.
A subtler aspect of Rickman’s magisterial stature on Broadway was the stylish domain where Leonard held court. Ryan Maloney’s set design for Kate’s living room, flowing silk sheets for walls and simple furnishings, has an unmistakable elegance, not a word I’d apply to any of Three Bone’s previous efforts in NoDa over the past four years. But it’s Maloney’s evocation of a ratty artist’s apartment later in the action, complete with its telltale writer’s clutter, that had me flashing back to the Broadway production.
Outside of ivied university walls and politically correct quads, taboos against student-teacher hookups obviously don’t apply, but with Three Bone’s comparatively leveled playing field, it’s easier to see that Izzy is playing the guys to her advantage — and actually less apparent that Leonard is playing her. Karina Caparino augments the difference by emphasizing Izzy’s wantonness and her frolicsome spirit. The Asian who played Izzy on Broadway was a little brainier, cosmopolitan. This Izzy is Bohemian with more raw and exposed emotions.
That chimes well with Harris’s more vulnerable approach to Leonard. I found myself paying far closer attention to Leonard’s big monologue, where he addresses his past disgrace. For me, it was less of a rueful confession and more of a bitter outcry of victimhood this time around, accentuated by some deft lighting cues by designer Carley Walker. Unexpectedly, it’s the previously meek Martin who pushes the esteemed writer to open up.
So yes, I can declare that Martin, in his painful — at times, infuriating — evolution demands a performance on a par with Leonard’s, and Scott A. Miller certainly delivers. I’m sure it isn’t a coincidence that Levine elicits an outing from Miller that’s as extraordinary as what we see from Harris, arguably eclipsing Miller’s stellar work earlier this year at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte in the title role of Danny, King of the Basement.
I’m only wondering how Levine did it. It’s easy to suppose that Levine enabled Miller and Harris to look inside themselves and find things they had never discovered before. That’s a typical mythology applied to directors. But here I suspect that Levine opened up new depths in Rebeck’s text, for I must admit that I thought it was a far slicker piece when I left John Golden Theatre in 2012 than I did at last Thursday night’s opening.
Beth Killion’s costume designs for Douglas aren’t as loud as those I saw on Broadway, making the well-connected student less of an object of derision. I found that new twist as enjoyable as the others, but with three of Charlotte’s best actors bringing their A games to this local premiere, Paul Gibson’s shortcomings as Douglas were more glaring than they might be otherwise. To mesh better with this ace cast, Gibson’s cue pickup needs to be swifter and his delivery surer. When he settled down — conquered his opening night jitters? — Gibson offered us a nuanced rendering of Douglas’s sense of entitlement and his nonchalant insider’s knowledge, not cartoonish at all. But his difficulties had come when he needed to dominate.
Our hostess Kate has more complexities than Izzy, and she can be even more irritating than Martin with her stubbornness and preciousness. Becca Worthington is better at Kate’s priggishness than she is at projecting the embarrassment of her privileged wealth, but there are hidden dimensions to this Kerouac hater that go undetected by Martin until the scene changes — and Worthington is marvelously attuned to those devastating surprises.