Theatre Review: “Seminar” at the Phoenix

Thursday night I saw the Indiana premiere of “Seminar” by Theresa Rebeck at the Phoenix Theatre in downtown Indianapolis. It takes place in New York City and is about four students in an expensive, exclusive writing seminar taught by a famous teacher who is brilliant and/or a jerk, depending on who you talk to.

Going in, there were three reasons I wanted to see it.  During, I loved the acting unequivocally.  Coming out, I had tears on my face and a lot to process from the story.  I’ll try to tell you about it without spoilers, because of course you will want to experience this show for yourself and form your own opinion.

The Three Reasons Going In

I put shows on my calendar for a variety of reasons.  Here is why I had “Seminar” penned in: 

The playwright – Theresa Rebeck created a TV show called “Smash” that I love.  It offers good storytelling and character development (i.e., it is NOT “reality TV”) and when I watch it I get the delicious-anxious feeling of being on the inside of a Broadway theatre production from conception to opening night.  

Before that, I knew of Theresa Rebeck through being on the committee that named her novel Three Girls and Their Brother a 2009 Alex Award winner. 

The actors – Three of the five-member Phoenix cast – Bill Simmons, Sam Fain, and Lisa Ermel – are “destination actors” for me. I.e., I have seen and loved them enough in other shows that I would go see them in anything now, even a show I know nothing about. 

The director – Dale McFadden also guest-directed “Fat Pig” by Neil LaBute at the Phoenix in 2007. If you are a regular reader of Indy Theatre Habit you know that that show started me on my current path of writing publicly about theatre.  He has directed several other shows for the Phoenix since then that I have enjoyed, too.

The Immediate Loves 

Now that I’ve seen it, I can tell you that all five of the actors in this piece are excellent.  Each makes his or her character hilarious and human in his or her own way. 

We are in blueblood Kate’s inherited apartment in New York City.  It is, by the way, a set that was cleverly designed by Bernie Killian and lit by Nolan Brokamp to give a feeling of expansiveness on the tiny Frank and Katrina Basile underground stage.  As the students move around freely in the mostly white, light-filled living room, you really believe that there are several other rooms extending on down the hallway, some with views of the river.  There is, in fact, more richness to the set than first meets the eye. 

There is more to Kate, too, than first meets the eye.  Lauren Briggeman gives Kate a tightly-wound quality that exactly fits her.

Kate got her MFA at Bennington but she has been friends with scrappier, much less-wealthy Martin since high school.  Martin keeps applying for, and getting rejected by, the famous literary writing programs.  Samuel Fain gives Martin an attractive cluelessness. 

The third member of the group is Douglas.  Douglas has been to the elite Yaddo writers’ retreat more than once and his agent says the New Yorker is seriously considering publishing one of his short stories.  Neal Eggeson portrays Douglas as smug and slimy and yet doing his best with what he’s been given, which is all any of us can do. 

Douglas and Martin are both attracted to Izzy.  She is physically breathtakingly beautiful, she enjoys sex, and she is pragmatic about these two advantages in helping her get what she wants for herself.  It is easy to feel jealous of Izzy, but Lisa shows us that Izzy is generous and loving, too.  If she had a motto I bet it would be “A rising tide floats all boats.”  In other words, sometimes Izzy sleeps with someone because she knows it will help him, not just her. 

“Giving and accepting help” is a big theme in this piece.   

So is “gifts differing.”  

So is “telling the truth and telling lies.”

All four of the students are in their 20s.  The teacher, Leonard, is a couple decades older and highly respected in the literary community.  “Everyone says” that he can help your writing career if you can get accepted into his seminar, so the four students have gladly paid the thousands of dollars required. 

However, Leonard comes to every meeting of the seminar high and/or hung over.  He talks disjointedly about his own travels rather than reading or responding in a thoughtful way to the students’ work.  When he does comment on a student’s work, his words are abrasive, even abusive. 

Yet when pressed, he can tell a student The Truth. 

Can’t he? 

And that’s helpful. 

Isn’t it? 

Bill Simmons is outstanding as Leonard: repulsive, frightening, pitiful…and irresistibly sexy, achingly vulnerable, fascinatingly shape-shifting.  The Devil and a god and just a man.  A writer and a helper and a bum.

The Painful Trip Down Memory Lane

I laughed a lot during this show, especially at the beginning, but being in Leonard’s class with the four young writers also brought back some not-fun memories of my own frustrating experiences in creative writing classes.  Man, if I had a nickel for every condescending writing instructor that told me I could “make a f*ckload of money writing for Hollywood,” (to use Leonard’s expression) I’d have a f*ckload of money already.

I left the theatre feeling depressed and wondering what my truth is and if I’ve somehow been ignoring it all these years. 

The Ah-Hah’s Here at Age 51

But now, after a day or two of sitting with the experience of this play, I’ve come to feel affection for it, and grateful to it for helping me to put some of my own past experiences into perspective.

For example, are these the only two goals a writer might have: become respected as a writer of literary fiction or make a ton of money as a writer of commercial fiction?

Of course not. 

Is there only one way to be passionate and ethical as a writer?

Of course not.

So maybe that is one of the points that the playwright is trying to make: many things sound like truth simply because a) they’ve been uttered by authority figures and b) we’re too young at the time to know the importance of respectfully (not defiantly) questioning authority, especially in our own minds.

On the other hand, everyone in this play does grow and benefit in some way from Leonard’s working with them.

All people – writers or not – have to decide what to do with the advice, criticism, feedback, and comments that come their way, asked for or not.  Maybe another point the playwright is trying to make is that what we take from any experience is up to us. 

And none of us can succeed alone.

Five Lines

Here are four lines that I jotted down during the show simply because I loved them:

“Writers in their natural state are like feral cats.”

“It’s so Darien.” (My family lived in Darien, Connecticut briefly when I was little.  I think it is now something like Carmel, Indiana: affluent and “safe” and somewhat full of itself and therefore easily mocked, but a nice place to live in a lot of ways.)

“Who gives a shit about someone that lacks an interior life?”

“Boys, boys, boys.  You just never get enough of yourselves, do you?”

I also loved hearing the following line when it came up in the show.  An actor named Pomme Koch in Washington, D.C. had tweeted it.  I found it when I was trying to find Theresa Rebeck on Twitter:

“Some people are so crippled they can’t stand the truth, but for those of us who partake, nothing else really comes close.”

A Few More Credits and Box Office

I also want to give a shout for the catchy music during the scene changes (sound design by Tim Brickley) and the personality-appropriate costume design by Ashley Kiefer.  Other credits include:

Producer – Bryan Fonseca.  Stage manager – Chelsey Wood.  Assistant stage manager – Lauren Thorne.  Technical director – Nolan Brokamp.  Props – Ashley Kiefer.  Light and sound board operator – Chelsey Wood.  Dramaturgy – David Santangelo.

“Seminar” continues Thursdays-Sundays at the Phoenix Theatre through November 25, 2012.  For more information and to make reservations, either call the Phoenix box office at 317-635-PLAY or visit their website: www.phoenixtheatre.org.

Okay, One Spoiler

Re-reading Lou Harry’s review of the Broadway production of “Seminar” in the Indianapolis Business Journal after I got home from the Phoenix production helped me to see that another reason the story upset me was that it felt “hijacked two thirds of the way through by a sexist male writer” and “Rebeck marginalizes Kate, her most interesting character…”

However, re-reading that review also made me realize that I like the ending of the Phoenix production after all. 

In the Phoenix production, in the final moments of the play, while we are watching Leonard and Martin bond and congratulate themselves over their new-found kindred spirithood as Rare and Serious Writers (and yes, I am being snarky), Kate steps silently back into her apartment with a little smile on her face.  Our attention is drawn to her even while the two men are still talking, so we can’t help thinking about her.  We remember that Kate won the praise of the master in more ways than one AND got a writing job that pleases her AND stopped being a doormat.

Maybe this is also a play about the fact that living well – which is not necessarily the same as becoming a star – is the best revenge.

‘See you at the theatres!

Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit and @IndyTheatre on Twitter.

©2012 Hope Baugh

(Photo above taken by Zach Rosing. Left to right: Lisa Ermel, Neal Eggeson, Bill Simmons, Sam Fain, Lauren Briggeman.)

8 thoughts on “Theatre Review: “Seminar” at the Phoenix”

  1. What a thoughtful and insightful review/writeup on this show! Thank you, Hope! While we are all sometimes plagued by that question of whether or not we have chosen the right direction for our lives…it remains true that, no matter what, we are who we are. Thank you for who you are and for what you do. The Indy Theatre Community is lifted up both by Indy Theatre Habit, and more specifically by yourself. I believe we are, as a community of artists, indebted to you. Cheers!

  2. Hope – Now that I have wrote my own review of this show, I was eager to see what you had to say. I love your description of the ending, you definitely make a valid, valid point about Kate’s redemption. I think the more I ponder the play the more I really loved her character’s journey. I definetely think it is a play that writers will really take something more personal away from, so for me it was interesting as I am starting on this writing path, but I was glad to have read how you related.

  3. Thanks very much for reading and for leaving your comment, Justin! I was glad to read your review on Mission Intrigue: Indy, too. This show continues to speak to me and I’d like to write about it some more if I can make the time.

  4. I saw the play tonight and liked it a lot. The acting was great. I wondered if the Martin character was based on David Foster Wallace? He dressed a lot like David Foster Wallace and had some speech patterns that seemed like him, too. The fact that he had thousands of pages written that he would not show anyone seemed like DFW, too. Does anyone know if this was intentional in the script?

  5. Thanks for reading and for leaving your comment, Annette! I’m always glad when someone has a good experience at a show. I’m sorry that I don’t know if the Martin character was based on David Foster Wallace.

  6. Echoing Justin’s appreciation of the ending, I can only wonder at whether the staging of Kate, wordless as it was, is part of what the original script dictates or instead an invention entirely The Phoenix’s. Ambiguity is funny that way – One can look at things simply as they are or appear to be, or in the space in-between the lines. From my vantage point during the performance I saw, her character seemed wistful, longing and unsatisfied, like her success felt robbed of what the “boys’ club” members got. Thinking about the implication of her conclusion from your take on things, however, one can wonder, if Martin models himself on Leonard, what limitations he might place on his own potential. The work presents questions, not answers – just one of its fascinating traits!

  7. Scot, thank you very much for your insightful comment! I’ve been directing people here to read it every since you posted it, but I only just realized that I hadn’t actually thanked you for writing it. Thank you! 🙂

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