A ferocious ensemble, by their sheer talent and resourcefulness, elevates “Seminar,” Theresa Rebeck’s rather self-important but scathing comedy-drama on writers.
Anyone who creates art or fiction can identify with the frustration and effort involved in writing, as well as the attention-getting that results, which the play illuminates well. Oh, it uncomfortably hits a few bull’s-eyes.
Rebeck, a very successful playwright (“Mauritius”), who also created the TV series “Smash,” has suffered the slings and arrows in the male-dominated trenches, and comes out swinging.
With a keen eye for observation and a stinging wit, she has sharply drawn personalities that aptly reflect the egos and pretentiousness that you can find at any writers’ gathering.
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Because such a gifted quintet delivers her quips and clever turns of phrase, that goes a long way in making the insular dissection of the writing process palatable.
Ernest Hemingway said this about writers: “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”
But there are many who keep trying, and that can be lucrative for those who seize opportunities. Consider Leonard, a writer of some merit whose editing skills have kept him gainfully employed. For easy money, he conducts writing seminars, extracting $5,000 each from aspiring scribes.
Four very different young adults have ponied up the dough to be enlightened, craving affirmation and eager to soak up his wisdom. They seek an “in” into the thorny publishing business.
What they get is a hard-drinking, pompous narcissist who pontificates about his Third World adventures and mocks most of what they turn in, quickly dismissing examples of their prose with withering words.
Nathan Bush is Douglas, conveying a pseudo-intellectual who is well-connected and enjoys dropping names, and inside lingo. Bush excels at finding the right vocal cadence and body language to nail his know-it-all role.
Jason Contini’s energy as eye-rolling, edgy Martin is bracing, and he’s convincing as a slacker who is hiding his writing prowess. Lacking confidence, but also irritated by the overbearing personalities he comes in contact with — whom he can deride and deflate with ease, Contini is magnetic.
When the conceited Leonard discovers Martin’s ability — he’s so good he could be the next big thing, presumably the second coming of David Foster Wallace or Bret Easton Ellis, that’s when the story shifts to real substance.
The women roles, unfortunately, seem to come up short on paper. Luminous Taylor Pietz plays a frumpy trust fund baby who mopes about slights and eats her feelings, but her character’s 180-degree turn feels sudden.
Alicia Smith, impressive in the LaBute New Play Festival, is pretty Izzy, comfortable using her feminine wiles to get ahead, but the contrived character suffers in comparison to the others. We don’t get a sense of her writing style, nor why she is really there, except to use sex as a weapon.
John Pierson is strong as Leonard, a big personality who can easily change the temperature in the room. He’s a terrible teacher, though, but his intriguing back story is brought to light in lengthy monologues. Pierson’s physicality matches his verbal dexterity for a knockout performance.
The slick ensemble volleys whip-smart exchanges like tennis pros. Their agility is capitalized on by director Elizabeth Hellman, whose shrewd timing skills were evident in the previous shows “All in the Timing” and “TopDog/Underdog” at SLAS.
Patrick Huber’s set and lighting designs are effective, while Carla Landis Evans’ costumes aptly capture the vivid personalities.
Works focusing on writers are difficult to pull off because writing is such an internal, solitary pursuit. However, because of the cast and production team’s dedication, “Seminar” is a stimulating theatrical exercise.
At a glance
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: St. Louis Actors Studio, 358 N. Boyle, St. Louis
Tickets: Ticketmaster or at box office 1 hour before show