Seminar, LA

Written by:
John Sullivan
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Written by Theresa Rebeck
Directed by Sam Gold
Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles
Presented by Center Theatre Group
Oct. 10-Nov. 18, 2012

Is there anyone out there unfamiliar with The New Yorker writer E.B. White’s famous remark about analyzing humor and dissecting a frog? And why the former is so much like the latter? Still, White’s observation doesn’t deter reviewers from picking up a scalpel and having a go at some playwright’s frog, so please stand back, everyone, and give me a little elbow room.

Which is not to suggest I found “Seminar” to be unfunny. Actually, it is often funny, and Theresa Rebeck tosses zingers out into the house like a Mardi Gras reveler throwing lagniappe to the crowds on Bourbon Street. And if the enthusiasm of the Ahmanson audience for these baubles sometimes struck me as excessive, I’ll readily concede that what I may find amusing, you could well find LOL.

In “Seminar,” an older, supposedly well-established writer, Leonard (Jeff Goldblum), is conducting a private, pricey instruction for four aspiring young novelists — Kate (Aya Cash), Martin (Greg Keller), Izzy (Jennifer Ikeda) and Douglas (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) — in Kate’s family’s upscale New York apartment.

Their stories, which Leonard seems to absorb instantaneously after a quick glance at the first page or two, elicit only his contempt. He fast-forwards through Douglas’s manuscript and then lacerates the kid by saying it’s “hollow,” a word he has always associated with “Hollywood” and “whores,” and suggests that that’s where Douglas’s talent — if he has any — will eventually lead him.

Similarly, he tramples Kate’s story: “I do know who your narrator is, she’s an overeducated, completely inexperienced, sexually inadequate girl who’s got … nothing to say, so she sits around and thinks about Jane Austen. … I don’t give a shit about that person. I don’t have to go past the first five words, ‘cuz I already know enough and I don’t give a shit.”

Leonard is just as cruel to Martin, whose ego is as fragile as his finances. When at last forced to show the old pro his writing, he politely asks the mentor to treat him with civility and not call him a “pussy.” Leonard accepts the manuscript with exaggerated reverence, as if receiving a torah to be placed in a synagogue’s ark, inclines toward Martin and utters one caustic word: “Pussy!”

Only the sexually free-thinking, free-wheeling Izzy escapes Leonard’s scorn, but is that because she’s a better writer than the other three — or because he senses she’s a young hottie he could probably bed?

For the play to be more than an updated version of the Spanish Inquisition’s greatest hits, Leonard has to be made to disappear from time to time so the young writers can play out their own hopes, anxieties, lusts and jealousies with each other and lick their wounds from his scorn. He does (supposedly on journalistic assignments to far-off locales, like Somalia), and they do. For the most part, the four 20-somethings do well, given the stick-figure characters written for them, and director Sam Gold moves everyone and everything along briskly.

Goldblum, as Leonard channeling his inner Torquemada, is stellar, which is what one would expect of a craftsman who’s done so many roles, on stage and in films, for so many years. His distinctive voice, his intonations, his little busy-bits are pitch perfect.

So what’s not to like? Not the zingers, but rather the contrived plot that brings the players on stage – sometimes just two of them, sometimes three, sometimes four and sometimes all five – to throw their figurative strings of plastic beads into the house and then exit. After a while, Seminar begins to resemble a longish Saturday Night Live skit or a Seinfeld episode. Not that there’s anything wrong with that but…….

George Alexander

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