What Terrence Spencer was to his tyrannized music students in Damien Chazelle’s Oscar-winning Whiplash, so novelist-turned-magazine correspondent Leonard is to the equally intimidated writers attending his uber-pricey workshop in Theresa Rebeck’s darkly comedic, dramatically potent Seminar, now being given a terrific Chance Theater Orange County Premiere.
Whatever early success may have brought Leonard (Ned Liebl) critical acclaim and accompanying fame, recent days have seen the one-time literary superstar doing magazine reportage in strife-torn Africa while waging his own one-one-one attacks on aspiring writers so desperate to publish that they will willingly fork over $5000 a head for a mere ten weekly sessions, none of which seem to last more than a matter of minutes.
At least Kate (Karen Jean Olds), whose old-money family’s nine-room rent-controlled (at a mere $800-a-month) Upper West Side apartment serves as the group’s meeting place, would appear to have more than enough in her trust fund to pay the prof.
The same can probably said for Douglas (Christian Telesmar), a preppy type who’s not only got family connections to the artists’ community Yaddo but is being courted by none other than The New Yorker.
College-age temptress Izzy (Asialani Holman), too, seems hardly in need of a handout.
Over the course of an absorbing, entertaining 100 minutes, prolific playwright Rebeck (subjected to her own fair, or unfair, share of criticism when her TV series Smash hit the airwaves a few years back) keeps us guessing as to what makes Seminar’s would-be writers and their egomaniacal mentor tick.
One thing is clear from the get-go. When it’s Leonard doing the critiquing, only the thick-skinned need apply.
No wonder then that Kate bristles when the one-and-only story she’s been working on for half-a-dozen years gets dismissed before even one page, make that even one paragraph, has been read.
As for Izzy, who isn’t above using her curves to rise to the top of the curve, or Douglas, who uses words like “interiority” and “exteriority” without a clue to their pretentiousness, or Martin, who seems ill-inclined to offer up even a single written page to the group’s scrutiny, it’s anyone’s guess just how savagely Leonard will eviscerate their work.
Rebeck’s dialog crackles with the familiarity of one who’s been there, suffered that, but the playwright leaves it up to Seminar’s director, actors, and audience to determine its characters’ motivations and intentions, only one reason her latest proves an exhilarating challenge to all of the above.
In other words, expect to be rehashing Seminar long after its unexpected climax.
Liebl’s Leonard has some illustrious footsteps in which to follow (Alan Rickman’s on Broadway, Jeff Goldblum’s at the Ahmanson), but follow them quite splendidly he does, giving us a man as egotistical as he is misogynistic and vicious of tongue, yet altogether human.
Long keeps so much of Martin hidden inside, when he lets it all out, be prepared to marvel yet again at the Chance Theater co-founder/resident artist’s gifts, and Olds proves herself once more one of the most watchable actors in town, giving us a Kate who’s absolutely worthy of her fellow writers envy and disdain, and of the audience’s compassion.
Looking like he stepped off the cover of GQ or Ebony, Telesmar nails Douglas’s urbanity, his conceit, and his self-doubts, and though Holman’s sexy Izzy could easily give any mean girl a run for her money, she too reveals layers beneath an icy surface.
Scenic designer Bruce Goodrich takes advantage of a freshly reconfigured Cripe Stage to suggest the expansiveness and elegance of Kate’s Upper West Side digs while concealing a nifty eleventh hour surprise. Leigh Allen’s subtle lighting choices, Goodrich’s character-appropriate costumes, and sound designer Jeff Polunas’s savvy use of chamber-style piano underscoring add up to a particularly fine production design.
Wade Williamson is stage manager. Jocelyn L. Buckner is dramaturg.
Theresa Rebeck’s playwriting gifts (and her insider’s knowledge of the world of which she writes) once again impress in Seminar. Impressive too is the latest from Chance Theater.
Chance Theater, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills.
October 5, 2016
Photos: Doug Catiller, True Image Studio