By MARK BLANKENSHIP
It's a comedy, sure, but there are serious questions rippling through Theresa Rebeck's Seminar, now in previews at Broadway's Golden Theatre.
As they gather for weekly classes with a successful and intimidating novelist, four young writers grapple with ideas about art and themselves. They wonder who they must become in order to succeed, and as their teacher (played by Alan Rickman) inspires tears and tawdry assignations, the stakes reach Faustian levels. In the final moments, characters make choices that seem to reorder the entire world.
But when Rebeck started writing, she wasn't thinking heavy thoughts. "I had had my own experiences with really brutal teachers," she says. "I thought of all the times I had my heart stomped on by a powerful figure whose approval I desperately wanted, and it seemed like an innately terrifying and hilarious situation."
She adds, "I also just thought it could be funny to see a really, really gifted actor in his fifties take apart a bunch of actors in their twenties."
Audiences will recognize that barbed spirit from earlier Rebeck comedies like The Understudy and The Scene, which revel in artists behaving badly. But there, too, jokes are blended with curiosity about how people behave.
Asked to discuss the larger issues in Seminar, Rebeck demurs, saying she doesn't want to define her play for anyone. She does, however, credit Rickman's performance for pushing the show to a more thoughtful place. As he glides among his students, blithely dismissing their work or refusing to remember their names, he seems like a pretentious monster, but when some of the students reach him, he reveals a mixture of self-loathing and creative energy. That humanity changes the impact of his acid humor.
"You can't work with Alan without learning things every day," Rebeck says. "He stays in a really internal place, which is something that imbued the rehearsal process. The play gained an enormous wealth of humanity in rehearsal, and we were not sure it was funny anymore. And we were okay with that, because in a lot of ways, it's a very fascinating and humane play about these people and their desperation and their passion."
When audiences saw the show, however, they laughed at the jokes. As Rebeck says, "There's room in those kinds of terrifying situations for a lot of comedy."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor