Douglas (Jerry O'Connell) is a slick, Yaddo-referencing, New Yorker-ready writer; the smug sort of guy who likes to talk about the so-called "interiority and exteriority" of his peers. Izzy (Hettienne Park) is his polar opposite, a rough and energetic writer, but one with the ability to go far in publishing, even if she has to flash her tits to do so. This makes Kate (Lily Rabe), the prude, spoiled would-be feminist more than a little jealous, and she'd say something about it if only she weren't so repressed. And then there's Martin (Hamish Linklater), who is simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by the lot of them, the sort of insecure genius whose work ends up being published posthumously. These four young writers have each paid $5,000 to secure a private workshop with the once-famous Leonard (Alan Rickman), so consider yourself lucky to have the opportunity to witness him dryly cut each of them down to size for considerably less money. Welcome to Theresa Rebeck's wickedly fun Seminar, a lesson that seeks to blur the line -- with razor-sharp wit -- between the self-diagnosed whorishness of Hollywood, the precise artlessness of The New Yorker, and the long-sought after (and ill-paid) honesty of "Literature."
Some people will inevitably be turned off by the self-absorbed nature of the play, and those who have taken a workshop will appreciate the backtalk, seething acceptance, and delusional comments quite a lot more. But director Sam Gold (as he did with the outstanding yet potentially insular Circle, Mirror, Transformation) manages to open up the production, working at a faster, sharper pace, sure, but with his patent naturalism intact. The students are sincere in their insincerity, and their professor means well with his mean-spirited comments; that's sometimes just how the world works. In Gold's hands, even Rebeck's shorthand stereotypes -- a few nymphomaniacal moments, a large tub of ice cream for a depressed girl -- manage to be successfully played for more than just laughs. (It helps that Rebeck is intensely aware of her own stylistic tics; unlike Mamet, who nowadays wallows in his own style, she is consciously making choices.)
The young actors are perfectly cast, with a surprisingly moderated turn from O'Connell and some heavy lifting from Rabe, who transforms from mousy shrew to confident sexpot. And while the play suffers a little from Martin's unwavering angst, Linklater learned enough about inflections while working on The School for Lies to at least provide some variance to all his cynical sniveling. Let's face it, though: this Seminar is largely taken for its professor, and Rickman is potent and present in this role, as much a dominating force as Linda Lavin was in Collected Stories. There's a marked difference -- as there should be -- between the master and the students, and Rickman is careful to ensure that his critiques are more than simple dismissals or snipes (Snapes?): you can see that he understands where his pupils/cast-mates are coming from, having been there once himself.
Harsh truths are rarely this entertaining, although it helps to be on the unlit side of the theater for some of the more scathing moments. Seminar may not be high art, but as Leonard reminds his students, noting the respectable positions of ghost- and screenwriters, it's still good work.