Great theater isn’t just about entertainment, it’s about making us think — whether through laughter, tears or the vitriolic excesses of a play such as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
“Seminar” doesn’t quite reach those bombastic heights, but when it hits its stride, this searing deconstruction of the literary establishment packs a considerable punch.
Presented by the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company at The Dairy Center, this regional premiere of Theresa Rebeck’s powerful drama seems deceptively simple. Four aspiring novelists meet weekly to be tutored by a semi-successful veteran with several books and a teaching career under his belt. Each of the students has paid $5,000 for the 10-week course. You just know they’ll get much more than they expected. The real question is what kind of scars the feedback will leave.
There’s Kate (Devon James), the angry daughter of wealthy parents in whose rent-controlled, Central Park penthouse the group meets. There’s foppish Douglas (Matthew Blood-Smyth), who is related to literary royalty, and Izzy (Mary Kay Riley) — a tall drink of water, as they used to say — who’s willing to trade on her looks for an opportunity at publishing success.
Bringing up the emotional rear is Martin (Sean Scrutchins), a penniless idealist who might well be the most talented of the bunch. It’s difficult to tell whether that talent is fueled by anger issues, or if it erupts out of the self-pity in which he wallows like a walrus in a school of salmon.
And then there’s Leonard (John C. Ashton), who’s more drill sergeant than scholar. A fall from academic grace landed him in the unenviable position of giving private seminars, and often the students seem little more than human couches upon which he can unpack his baggage. He’s got a lot of issues, this one.
“Seminar” boasts only five characters and two locales, yet it covers an amazing amount of emotional ground. Rebeck knows the authorial landscape she writes about, having written more than a dozen plays and served as executive producer for NBC’s “Smash.” Focus groups, writers colonies, ebooks, magic realism — the buzz words of the literary milieu abound, as does the insecurity that seems to plague even the most capable of craftsmen.
There are the usual surface tensions (Kate has a thing for Martin, and Martin has a thing for Izzy) and the petty jealousies of the writing life. But mostly there’s a sense of four strangers being thrown into a creative death match. Leonard deconstructs each student by turn, demonstrating the power of words to not only inspire but, maliciously invoked, to psychologically flay.
Director Steven Weitz paces the action at a brisk 90 minutes, and Rachel Atkinson’s lighting is fluid and unobtrusive. Rebeck clearly knows her craft, yet it takes a keen cast to bring her words to life. She finds it in Devon James’ sublimely volatile Kate, Scrutchins’ manic child-man Martin and unimpeachable turns from Blood-Smyth and Riley.
That said, this is Ashton’s show to steal as the cantankerous Leonard. He brings empathy to a thoroughly unlikable cad, forcing viewers to ask difficult questions: Do we want a teacher who coddles or crucifies? Is good art born of suffering or serenity? By whose standards should we measure success, our own or those of a world prone to cruelty?
Like I said, great theater makes you think.