Successful writers, like most notable artists, carry a reverential and romantic aura. Those who aspire to such a life are desperate to learn how to manifest this magic on their own account. In Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar, we eavesdrop on four aspiring writers who have paid $5,000 each to have their work analyzed by a name author.
As with any profession, writing has its touchstones that enable philanthropists, award committees, and critics to justify their grants, accolades, and put-downs; but after observing the willy-nilly and trendy nature of these lists, common sense suggests that anyone considering slapping down five grand, for an excoriation by a recognized name brand, needs to examine their motivation.
Leonard (John C. Ashton) shows up weekly at Kate’s (Devon James) apartment on the upper west side to read and evaluate his seminarians’ work. The aspiring scribes—Kate, Douglas (Matthew Blood-Smyth), Martin (Sean Scruchins), and Izzy (Mary Kay Riley)—jockey, cajole, and seduce him and each other for approbation.
After a slow start, in which we are subjected to occasionally amusing, cerebral discussions, the shifting alliances and jealousies of the group begin to gather dramatic momentum, engaging us in the various subplots; while the main focus remains on writing and achieving success thereby.
Judging from the final scene, it is Martin who is earnestly conflicted between the definition of success in commercial terms versus the integrity of the work. Given the great artists who died destitute (Mozart, for example), or the many talentless pop artists who rake in millions, we question the premise of measuring success in Federal Reserve Notes; yet, to her credit, Rebeck does couch this in terms of making a deal with the devil (Mephistopheles), represented by Leonard.
While we agree that the best advice an aspiring writer can get is a red-line edit by someone who knows his or her stuff, and that Leonard’s emphasis on personal honesty is well taken (if ironic, in his case), there are two elephants in the room that are never referenced: the hours, days, weeks, and years of sitting alone that are required to hone one’s craft; and, the life experience that provides the basis for having something unique to say.
As in the Broadway production, it is the performances that carry the script. Ashton delivers Leonard’s vituperative edge in spades, as each neophyte’s work is reviewed and eviscerated, often after only a cursory reading. The exception to this being Izzy’s work, because, we assume, Leonard has sexual designs on her. Riley vamps on her good looks and scanty costumes with a deft touch, letting testosterone do the rest of the work on Leonard, Douglas, and Martin. One could make a good case that, for Douglas and Martin, her attentions to them rank far above a compliment from Leonard.
All of this leaves Kate on the outside, though she does get her revenge and then some. James hides her attractiveness well—as the male frenzy swirls around Izzy for a number of weeks—instead, relying on her research skills and a clever ploy to prove her point. When things shift in Kate’s favor, James throws us all for loop.
In Blood-Smyth’s hands, Douglas’ preoccupation with his pseudo-intellectual prowess, tenuous industry connections, and iffy commissions is a hoot, not to mention his faux suave attempts to bed Izzy.
Finally, after everyone else’s work has been shredded, the emotional Martin lets Leonard read his manuscript. Perhaps we are being told here that the best work comes from those who struggle the most with everyday life. Certainly, there are endless examples of troubled, yet brilliant, artistic souls. Scrutchins’ Martin is dialed into this hyper-sensitive space, considerably upping the dramatic stakes. Nevertheless, we are left wondering, if naked truth be the measure of good writing, is Leonard the one to help Martin, given his own checkered history and despite a terrific monologue by Ashton—which sums up the sorry state of the parochial New York publishing scene, rife with pliagarists and prevaricators. Like Martin, we must pause and consider Leonard’s Faustian bargain.