Latest Blue Room play is about writers, but real people will find it relevant, too
Seminar is a play about writers, written by a Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer, in which the action centers around five writers ostensibly talking about—what else—writing. For that reason, I thought it might be appropriate to begin with a quote about writers.
A quick Internet search reveals there’s plenty to choose from, about a thousand on goodreads.com alone, with classic to contemporary authors chiming in on what qualities constitute good and bad writers and the value (or lack thereof) of their ilk to society. There’s absolutely no consensus and none that fit the play better than a line from Seminar itself, delivered by the play’s most senior writer, Leonard: “Writers, in their natural habitats, are as civilized as feral cats.”
Point is, writing is largely a self-referential undertaking. “Write what you know,” aspiring authors are told from the beginning, so what the nonwriting public gets—for better or worse—is lots of writing about writers.
In Seminar, it’s done well. Playwright Teresa Rebeck manages to offer a glimpse into the souls of those who long to express themselves through the written word, while effectively managing to relate that struggle to the greater human experience. There are enough literary references and commentary on the craft to ignite knowing smiles to the wordsmiths (and avid readers) in attendance, while the whole play drips with enough dark humor, human drama and underlying sexual tension to appeal to those who’ve never pressed pen to paper.
In the play, four wannabe novelists each pay a veteran author and editor $5,000 to attend his 10-session weekly writers’ workshop. Each of the five characters represents an archetype: there’s Douglas (Shawn Galloway), a pompous, mildly talented pseudo-intellectual with a story pending publication in The New Yorker; Izzy (Suzanne Papini), a sex kitten more than willing to use her feminine wiles to advance her career; Douglas (Jesse Mills), a neurotic smart-ass whose own crippling self-doubt manifests through his prickly exterior; and Kate (Amber Miller), an affluent, repressed woman whose nine-bedroom, rent-controlled, “old-money” Manhattan apartment serves as the play’s primary setting.
Reigning over the young writers is the more seasoned Leonard (Roger Montalbano), a jaded, rough-and-tumble former novelist cut from the Hemingway cloth, who occasionally postpones sessions to gallivant drunk and high around war-torn African countries in search of inspiration. Montalbano shines in this role, and is simultaneously hilarious and terrifying as he shreds the young writers’ hopes and dreams.
All of the cast members fill their roles perfectly, milking the personalities and rich dialogue Rebeck provides to great effect. Galloway’s entitled windbag act is spot on, and Miller’s frumpy Kate takes the spotlight late as she undergoes a series of plot-twisting transformations. Papini oozes sensuality, and Mills’ understated protagonist elicits the intended empathy.
Many Blue Room productions take the less-is-more approach to set design, relying on lighting and theater tricks to approximate separate locations. Since Seminar takes place almost entirely in a single NYC apartment, the stage crew (under Miller’s direction) was able to construct a more elaborate, convincing set that puts the audience ring-side to Kate’s living room as the players figuratively crush (and literally caress) one another.
While the character’s words and actions toward each other stoop to downright viciousness, the whole affair resolves on a surprisingly bright note. Overall, though, this adds to the accessibility and comedic value of the play. It’s highbrow, but not overly so, and driven by love for the written word, but lively enough to fill the stage. In short, it’s a play about writers and writing, but it’s written for everyone.