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Glenda Frank


 SEMINAR  by Theresa Rebeck. 
Directed by Sam Gold at the Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45 St., NYC.
Oct. 27, 2011 -- March 4, 2012. 
Tues. – Thurs. at 7 PM; Fri. and Sat. at 8 PM. Wed. and Sat. at 2 PM, Sun.at 3 PM. 
Tickets $29.50 (student rush) -- $136.50.   
212-239-6200 or 800-432-7250or http://www.telecharge.com.

He's the teacher from Hell -- and it is so much fun to watch him strut his nastiness in Theresa Rebeck's fine new play "Seminar" at the Golden Theatre. He's a brother to Gregory House, M.D., without the confusing medical jargon; to Lady Bracknell, but male and sexy; to Iago although we learn he's far more generous than we imagined. And this intriguing is perfect for the intriguing Alan Rickman, who does smart and tough with enough panache to keep audiences buzzing for a long while.

But more remarkable about this drama and production is the surprising protagonist, Kate played with idiosyncratic charm by Lily Rabe. The four students in the writing seminar have paid $5000 each. It’s such a hefty sum that one writer loses his apartment and goes into debt. Before Leonard, The Great Writer, arrives they are hyped up with excitement and hope. After Leonard begins, they are stunned to receive not the expected praise, not even guidance but attacks, no-holds-barred truth-tellings that explode their dreams and their self-images. It’s pretty raw stuff. He interrupts one writer in the middle of her first sentence to lays into her.

Kate is the most vulnerable, a delicate flower that withers right before our eyes, collapsing into sobs, recriminations -- and then a brilliant counter-move. It’s easy to stereotype her as the rich girl -- the mousy Upper West Sider in a rent stabilized apartment and the host of the seminar. Everyone stereotypes her. We are meant to. But the browbeating -- which continues every time Leonard holds a class -- is a catalyst to shake her out of her comfort zone into a shocking manuscript -- one that breaks a half dozen rules and makes you want to hear more.

Love and writing are at odds in “Seminar” and love take several forms. Izzy  (Hettienne Park)  uses sex like a tool, an interviewing technique, yet her choices are sometimes bizarre. She's outspokenly ambitious, collecting contacts yet she writes a short piece that leaves everyone a bit bewildered but envious.  Martin  (Hamish Linklater) is all impulse and fear. His heart is a mystery to him, one he doesn't discover until the last scene. He refuses to share his work with the group although he has thousands of pages squirreled away -- and he risked everything to take the seminar. His affection may belong to one woman but his libido takes another path. Douglas  (Jerry O'Connell) is pompous and well-connected, not without talent, but not driven to tell his stories. Leonard holds up a mirror to him -- and the class is aghast. And even though it looks like love is in the cards for him -- close doesn't win the night.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the play is when Leonard takes a hard look at himself. This is who I have become, he tells the students, a disappointment to myself. And this is who you may become if you continue to write against all the obstacles, external and internal. But he is also an enabler, a man with contact who recognizes the talent of each of his students. He never grow soft -- does House? -- but he becomes the gatekeeper, a role the students had imagined when they ponied up that hefty tuition. He’s not the sort of gatekeeper they dreamed, but he’s one all the same. For those of us lucky enough to have had teachers like this -- the play stands as a powerful tribute. And for those of us with kinder guides, it's one hell of a good play in an excellent production. Any playwright is lucky to have such a talented cast, especially when it's led by the incomparable Sam Gold.


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