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Acidic, Riotous Humor Drives This Seminar

Seminar
Seminar at the Kitchen Theatre.

Seminar is a play that exists deliriously and perfectly in the moment. Theresa Rebeck’s riff on art versus commerce played out in a quartet of young 20-somethings in NYC (think Friends with a lot more bite) is replete with zingers, scheming plot-twists, and one glorious monstre sacré by the name of Leonard, a washed-up novelist who has regained some lit-world clout through editing and from writing fresh from world hot-spots.

Given the notoriety of that role (Alan Rickman (devious Prof. Snapes himself) originally played Leonard on Broadway), it’s quite a surprise to find that the quartet of young wannabe artists is the main focus early on. We are immersed in their squabbles, desires, and widely differing tactics well before Leonard arrives.

The well upholstered Douglas (Matthew Bretschneider), a veteran of Yaddo and other residencies, Yale-bred, spins lit-crit language like the latest blogger/cocktail party/gallery-hopping aesthete. In Bretschneider’s hands, Douglas remains blissfully unaware that he’s simply blowing smoke; mixing the smooth-talk with a bumbling boyish naivete when faced with two much smarter women.

Katie is the instigator of this particular private writing workshop, asking each of the others to chip in $5000, while she provides the rent-controlled Upper West Side gigs. Dana Berger enjoys every little tic in this tightly wound, presumably settled and self-assured “feminist.” In many ways, her journey from wanting to please to wanting to score big, is the clearest yet most complex of all four.

Izzy (Alex Sunderhaus) attached herself to the over-earnest Martin (David McElwee) at a cocktail party; a decent writer, she has no compunctions about how she gets ahead, with a body that makes all the boys (and men) salivate, she simply attaches herself to whomever gives her the best chance to get herself out there as a writer. Her lack of shame is blissful to behold, and Sunderhaus dangles herself with an Amazonian pride.

Martin is the square peg in all these round holes, completely wrapped up in writing as art, as a product of the soul, and virtually clueless about sex (though happy to throw himself at it.) Apparently he is the genius manque in this bunch, but he won’t even share his work. McElwee is a marvelous mess of emotions, false starts, manifestoes, and aching loss as Martin.

Into this storms the lascivious, aloof, nasty, and acerbicly funny Brian Dykstra as the literary lion Leonard. Maybe Leonard has been labeled a has-been, but this man still has fangs and desire. He treats the whole workshop game as the game it is, puncturing egos like a revved-up drill-press. Yet he carries a wound, a wound that finds its mirror in one of the writers.

I loved the satire of the play’s first half, as pointed and anti-pretense as Moliere. The second half devolves into that old genre of master and pupil, and while satisfyingly written, lacks the punch and deftness of the earlier material.

Director Margarett Perry whips all into a comic frenzy with her customary deftness at contemporary comedy. Each actor is spot on, the pace furious, and the moments land like a championship boxing match.

Design is strong with David Arsenault back on set and lights, Ian Crawford on sound and intern Amanda Aiken stepping up with a sharp costume design.

I must confess, however, I am simply tired of young white semi- or vastly privileged things this season. Only Heroes and Black Pearl Sings! have strayed from some version of this world, however differing the use of language and setting in the plays at the Kitchen this season.

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