Saturday, November 26, 2011

Seminar: Worshiping at the Altar of Alan Rickman

I like Alan Rickman just fine.  I don't go weak in the knees as some people are wont to do.  I had not seen him on stage before and I felt it was long overdue.

Theresa Rebeck's play, Seminar, may not have been the best place to start.  Did you see God of Carnage?  Did you like God of Carnage?  Seminar reminded me a lot of God of Carnage mainly because it was trying really hard to set up laughs for certain knowing audiences. It seemed interested in lampooning a certain segment of New York society.  At the end of it all, I found God of Carnage wasn't saying much about anything at all.  Seminar has a little more to offer but it still was, in the final analysis, anemic on substance.  But if you enjoyed the bubbly, har-har comedy of God of Carnage then Seminar might be a delicious nibble to enjoy this holiday season.

The premise of Seminar is four young fiction writers pay a well-known writer and editor to give them a "Master Class" on writing.  Rickman plays Leonard, the instructor and leader of the class.  The four students are played by Lily Rabe, Hamish Linklater, Jerry O'Connell and Hettienne Park.  Rabe is an uptight, "feminist" who is torn apart by Rickman first leaving her in tattered pieces.  O'Connell is a privileged, name-dropper who has had success and will continue to have success.  Park is a realistic climber and interested in sex on the page and off.  Linklater is a buttoned up snob, who will criticize the other writers in private but never has the courage to do so in front of Leonard. 

For the most part the drama is about the way in which Leonard reviles or revels over the writing of one of the students.  Their neuroses, verbosity or dalliances complete the substance of the drama.  The play seems mainly just a platform for Rickman to majestically wound, pontificate and pounce on these underlyings.  He's a fantastic actor and does so without much effort at all.  His comic timing and sharp delivery elevate the material more than anything.

When the four writers are arguing and jousting it is less sharp and less funny.  I was disappointed in the quality of the character development.  After just seeing Sons of the Prophet, in which each character is so deftly and thoughtfully created, Seminar seemed positively lacking.  The character development was far and above Godspell but that isn't really an endorsement.  Each actor tried with the material they were given but they did not have very much to work with.

For some reason, Rabe was the weakest for me but I think the material failed her the most.  She had this very pinched tone to her voice at the beginning that gets stripped away over time but I still struggled to understand who her character was.  She undergoes a serious transformation  over the course of the play but  that story arc was the least satisfying to me.  It could be that she had the hardest job to do and the writer did her few favors in getting her through this transformation. 

Linklater (who was oddly positioned on stage in such a way that I saw his back more than his front for most of the show) was an enigma of a character but his voice and mannerisms were a lot more revealing.  Even from the back, I felt I gained some insight into his character's joys and fears.

O'Connell was playing against type and seemed very comfortable in the role.  Park was given the least character development but she delivers on her character's fearless and driven attitude. 

There is a small message at the end of the play about the fear that hold us back, the challenges of creativity, and the hurt one can inflict on one another.  I remember being in film school and thinking nothing in life had prepared me for the demand of being creative on a weekly basis.  Every week we needed to write and deliver a new movie.  My well of creativity never felt so shallow or dry before.  But Rebeck doesn't spend a lot of time on these messages.  The ambitions of the young writers take up too much of our stage time and without developing their characters it becomes the least interesting subject matter.

1 comment:

  1. I had a lot of similar feelings about this show. Namely, it did feel like Rebeck was trying too hard. I like your comparison to "Carnage," because it is exactly in that vein, but doesn't feel as effortless. I thought Rabe's character was pretty shallow, but for what it was, she did a fantastic job. I knew going in Rickman would be good, but I think his mere presence raised everyone's game (especially Rabe's).

    There's a lot of interesting stuff going on, ideas on writing, what it means to be a writer, an artist, a creator, etc. but it's simply a meditation on the art form and (to an extent) the politics behind it. Not much of a thesis statement -- nothing that really hit it out of the park at the end, even though there was ample opportunity for it and the build up was in place. Still, I enjoyed it for what it was, though I was very happy I didn't pay full price for that ticket.