Monday, May 5, 2014

"Seminar" ☼ ☼ ☼

If you have ever been in a writer's group, we must give you an upfront warning about Theresa Rebeck's "Seminar":  it will make you cringe. Although we fully understand why any writer, even one as successful as Theresa Rebeck, would find a writer's group to be fertile ground for lampooning, this particular group may stretch your imagination. The idea is that four young writers have decided to pay a somewhat over-the-hill writing coach $5,000 EACH for a ten week seminar, in which his task is to simply show up and critique their stories. But the coach, Leonard (played by Charles Shaw Robinson), is a nasty and bitter man, eager to vent his bile on his unwitting students, while sleeping with as many as possible.

That last part, we've been there, we get it.

But would any writing coach, hired at that kind of blue-chip price, ever be as senselessly cruel as Leonard? How many undiscovered writers do you know who could get their hands on that much cash in the first place? Of course, later on we hear that "writers are not humans," which will explain why we all (reviewers included) will do anything to get our work heard and appreciated.

This last part is, sadly, again true.

The story centers around Kate, who lives in a plush 9-room Upper West Side apartment, courtesy of her parents. The group meets there.  Played by Lauren English, Kate has been working on the same Jane Austen-ish story for years and she is the first to be dismissed with scorn by Leonard. (He does admit he only read the first sentence.) Kate, who went to Bennington, is a feminist writer who yearns to break through the barriers in her own life. We don't know if she can write or not, but she is a bright bulb. Natalie Mitchell is solid as the somewhat dim Izzy, the prototypical Rebeck sexy vamp who is willing to use all her tools to get ahead; Patrick Russell is terrific as Douglas, the pretentious writer with the famous novelist uncle; and James Wagner wrestles with Martin, seemingly a shy loser who has no money nor a place to live (although he did come up with the $5 grand) and also never presents any work to the group -- yet he turns out to be irresistible to Izzy and Kate.

Obviously, Theresa Rebeck has been here before. Her characters speak painful truths about each other. Kate figures out how to play the game but Martin is the one we are supposed to believe is the great writer. One of the play's highlights (there are several) is Leonard's critique of the future he sees for Martin -- which, we come to see, is exactly what Leonard has experienced himself. 

For us, the show would be much stronger if we actually ever got to hear any of the group's writing. For a story about a writing seminar, writing examples would go a lot further than one-liners to give us a way into the inner lives of these characters.  

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Seminar" Three Stars. Writers, in particular, will love to squirm in their seats as each of the characters competes for illusive approval. Non-writers will find pleasure in the bed-to-bed hijinks. We like how Kate grows into understanding. We wish the others had been given a chance to do the same.

San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street (2d floor of Kensington Park Hotel)
Through June 14