Views and Reviews: SEMINAR by Theresa Rebeck on Broadway

“Do you want to be a writer?”

This is the question that not only marks the end of Theresa Rebeck’s new comedy, Seminar, currently running on Broadway, but also captures the essence of Rebeck’s play as a whole; seeing what it costs, how it can destroy you, how it can unmake, remake, and morph you, how it can take everything away or give you everything you ever wanted…do you want to be a writer?

Hamish Linklater and Lily Rabe in the Broadway production of SEMINAR, by Theresa Rebeck. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Seminar is a clever comedy with a talented cast. Lily Rabe reinvents the forlorn female pining after unrequited love while struggling to “make it” in a “man’s world;” in other words, the character of Kate could easily become an obnoxious stereotype and in Rabe’s hands is instead a fresh, funny, Joan Cusack-ish spitfire of a girl whose every emotion is somehow relatable to everything we’ve ever felt as women, forlorn or not. (Note: in case you missed it, I ADORED Lily Rabe).  Hettienne Park is forgettable as ditzy, over-sexed Izzy, but she’s the only real disappointment in the cast. Jerry O’Connell is the perfect fit for the hilarious and pleasantly douche-like Douglas and Hamish Linklater as Martin was so real I felt like I knew the guy. Seriously, I think I KNEW this guy…in high school, college, somewhere, I have SEEN this guy walking around in his emo sweatshirt wearing a tortured writer face and lamenting the loss of language in our civilization. I mean, good grief, I think I went to grad school with this guy.

Speaking of the loss of language in our civilization…

Dang it.  That would have been SUCH a nice transition.  But I need to pause for a moment and talk about Alan Rickman first.  🙂

Jerry O'Connell and Alan Rickman in SEMINAR by Theresa Rebeck. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Alan Rickman is a true talent. One of the greatest things about his role as Leonard, the elitist ex-novelist who is teaching a seminar to these four young writers on how to write the next great American novel, is that at first, he is entirely underwhelming. Don’t get me wrong – his wit is acerbic, his cynicism biting and all that good stuff (plus his voice is, of course, to die for) – but there was nothing particularly deep about the character. YET. And then comes this amazing moment about three-quarters of the way through the play where this character just unfolds, almost crumples open, to reveal the man behind the persona. And as he does in all his work, Alan Rickman accomplishes the transformation brilliantly.  Quite, quite brilliantly.

Now, back to the loss of language in our civilization…

O'Connell and Rabe in a scene from SEMINAR by Theresa Rebeck.

In my opinion, Seminar is a bit of a love letter to writers and to writing in general. Linklater’s character, Martin, makes a comment early on in the play that essentially asks, if you don’t care about the language, then why write?  What I find interesting about Rebeck’s play, then, is how much she cares about the language…or then again, does she?

It’s an on-going debate in my mind. As writers we strive for authenticity. We want to make sure our characters’ voices are heard as they should be heard; we want them to say what that character – if they were an actual person – WOULD SAY.  And yet, don’t we to some extent desire a loftier use of language than what is found in the über-limited every day vernacular?

Rebeck makes it clear that Martin feels this way, and yet the script is inundated with what I find to be the great plague of most contemporary plays – the banal use of foul language. It’s the filler for EVERYTHING now.  And I do mean EVERYTHING.  Need a laugh line? Throw in the F-word. Angry about something? F-word. Insulting someone? Let’s change it up, but keep it pretty much the same by calling someone a…well…let’s keep the blog PG and say, “cat.”  Now, in way of justification, I do mark that there’s an interesting sequence where Martin’s character responds rather negatively to being called a “cat,” in fact, asks quite pointedly NOT to be called a “cat,” and Rickman’s character, Leonard, replies essentially that “cat,” in this case, is exactly the right word for the situation.

Linklater and Rickman in a pivotal scene from SEMINAR. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

I appreciate that moment from Rebeck. I don’t think of myself as a prude – all language has its purpose – but I am tired to death of curse words being the fall-back or the norm. We don’t think about WHY we use these words anymore; we don’t take time to figure out if they’re even the RIGHT words, we just use them because, hey, who doesn’t?  And it can be cheap. And lazy. In my opinion.

Overall, I think Rebeck does put a lot of thought into the use of her language in this play (foul and otherwise), though there still seems to be a heavy hand across the board these days that insists foul language is the constant norm in the speech of every day people. And maybe that’s just a little disappointing. Because if we as playwrights strive to reflect the norm of every day speech while every day speech is growing more and more limited (as well as more and more foul), where are our scripts headed?  Will there be any contemporary plays that can be performed in a public high school?  Or at a more conservative college or university?  What about the concept of “family friendly” theatre?  Where does that line even get drawn anymore?

I’ve gone off on a tangent.  🙂  I could talk about this for hours (maybe days), but my point is that we as playwrights should really learn to be thoughtful in our use of language (again, foul or otherwise), a little more purposeful, and maybe even a little more picky.

And I’ll save the comments on nudity in theatre (TWICE in Rebeck’s play) for another post.  😉

Overall, I highly enjoyed Seminar; it was fun and smart and thought-provoking, especially for writers. I really felt like she put a lot of her writer-self into the play and it was very enjoyable to see. Especially because of Lily Rabe. And Hammish Linlater. And Jerry O’Connell.

And of course, Alan Rickman. 😉

The Broadway cast of SEMINAR with playwright Theresa Rebeck and director Sam Gold.

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About dramachicky

I am a dramachick: a playwright, actress, director, wife, singer, reader, aunt, daughter, student, teacher, and dreamer. My husband has taken to calling me dramachicky. :-) I have my M.A. and M.F.A. in creative writing/playwriting from Wilkes University. My husband and I started a small theatre group in northeast Pennsylvania called Ghostlight Productions. I love all things theatre and I am thrilled to launch this blog as a celebration of women playwrights.
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6 Responses to Views and Reviews: SEMINAR by Theresa Rebeck on Broadway

  1. Aurathena says:

    This was a great view. 🙂 I agree with your comments are profanity; I don’t believe that it’s necessary. I really wish that I could have seen Seminar, but Alan Rickman is no longer starring. 😦

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