Here’s Leonard, award-winning novelist: “Am I creating a living, breathing cosmos with language, or am I just scratching at the wall of a cave?”
Ostensibly he’s teaching a seminar on the craft of fiction, held at Kate’s rent-controlled, Upper West Side apartment. But he turns out to be a burned-out, butch misogynist with a frigid soul for whom “constructive criticism” is wussy.
His four students are writers somehow able to pay $5000 for the ten-week course (Theresa Rebeck’s comedy-drama has glitches; for example, if their prose needs coaching, how can they afford the fee?).
Leonard, who stopped writing novels for mysterious reasons, doesn’t just critique their work. He interrogates with literary water-boarding. He also demeans the students. The spineless cowards should hurtle at once to the lake of ice at the bottom floor of Dante’s Inferno.
Even the New Yorker takes a hit. It has “the detached tone of perplexed intelligence.” (Though Raymond Chandler still reigns: “I appreciate but care not to practice the rather arctic style of the New Yorker.”)
The students frequently mention Yaddo and MacDowell, famous New England colonies where artists can flourish in peace and quiet.
For most of its 90-plus minutes, Seminar is the opposite. It takes a Darwinian, survival-of-the-fittest view of writing fiction. Leonard shreds hopes and egos as he crusades for “truth.” But where is the truth about a piece of writing? Do the students honestly assess each other’s work? Are they too kind, too mean? Is Leonard accurate? Or just culling out the hacks with overkill?
As the classes become group-therapy sessions with seemingly negative results, the playwright raises some tough questions about writing professionally, then sidesteps them and settles for a facile ending, in which spines grow, desserts are just, and talent outs.
It’s a high compliment to Jonathan Sachs (outstanding as draconian Leonard), director Kym Pappas, and the InnerMission Productions cast that they make the playwright’s sudden change of key and tone — and mind — feel reasonably consistent. The play has gaps but the InnerMission production shows why they recently earned the prestigious Don Braunagel Award for small theater companies.
Michael McKeon’s inventive set turns the audience into writers at the seminar. People sit on all four sides of an all-black stage, on which lines from the play are painted in white. Are the actors reading your submission? Is Leonard carving you a new one?
Supercharged performances by Sachs, Samantha Ginn (antsy/verbal Kate), Dana Wing Lau (sensuous Izzy), Robert Malave (defensive Douglas), and Alex Guzman (remember the name; as Ugly Duckling Martin) built strong intensities and comic interludes. The production saves the play.
Playing through March 26.
Many moons ago, as a graduate student at UC Irvine, I had the great good fortune to become friends with Oakley Hall, San Diego’s finest novelist and head of the MFA in Fiction program. One time he let me attend his master seminar. He and the students went at it— but constructively. During the break as we walked out together, I said: “You’re actually teaching them how to read.” He winked.