A gripping “Seminar” on art and life

By Anna Holloway

Don’t you want to be a famous writer? Of course you do, especially if you are one of the New York literati in Theresa Rebeck’s play “Seminar.” Playing now through February 25 at Shakespeare in the Paseo’s ‘white box’ theatre, Rebeck’s study in artists and their issues is a masterful piece of theatre. Directed by Linda McDonald for BIGNOSE Productions, the play takes us through three weeks of interpersonal interaction that finally exposes true art.

 Big Nose Productions' SEMINAR, onstage this weekend and next.

Big Nose Productions' SEMINAR, onstage this weekend and next.

The short version of this review: Go see this play. It speaks directly to the costs of devotion to a muse—any muse. For more information, read on.

Katie, Izzy, Douglas and Martin all want to get their literary feet in the door of an A-list magazine or publisher, and Leonard is their best bet. A former novelist and professor with a reputation as a great teacher of writers, he charges a small fortune for an elite, 10-week seminar. The four friends combine their resources and settle in for the process, meeting in Katie’s rent-controlled upper West Side apartment.

Emily Etherton as Katie delivers a rich portrait of a New Yorker seeking self-realization and recognition as an artist…and perhaps an affirming relationship. Or she might settle for sex. Etherton gives Katie nuances and pockets of gritty humanity that make the character both sympathetic and all to uncomfortably human.

David Mays as Douglas is the classic self-important, pompous ass of an artist. He has connections, he’s been published, and he mentions both mercilessly. Mays gives his braggadocio a solid base of insecurity, which makes Douglas almost endearingly fragile—for a moment or two. Mays plays all the aspects of pretention with frightening sincerity.

Izzy, who so much acts the classic tart that we know of course she can’t be, is played with energy and verve by Jennifer Farley. Izzy is the political one, trying to keep everything on an even keel, flattering and teasing in just the right amount, intervening as delicately as possible in explosive situations. Farley gives Izzy a professional edge that belies her entirely predictable—but still not quite expected—ethics violation.

Kevin Moore plays Martin with an appealing combination of apprehensive reserve and cynical openness. He is convinced early on that Leonard is a fraud, but he has impoverished himself to attend this workshop. Moore builds the character throughout the play, until the ending leads us into a part of his life even he didn’t quite know was there.

Leonard, the direct, cruel, honest bludgeon of a writing instructor, is finely drawn and delicately colored by Ben Hall. The character is richly layered, and Hall gradually allows each level to peek through in tantalizing increments. As the layers unfold, Hall’s Leonard becomes more admirable without any manipulative movement toward being more likable. Some of the seven veils are very subtle and others have more weight; in the end, we meet the core of Leonard’s damage and how it supports and elevates his true art.

Director McDonald has assembled a very fine cast and used them and the somewhat awkward space very well. Scene changes were mercifully short and passage of time was clear—no simple accomplishment. She uses both ends of the room, asking the audience to reverse their seats at one point in the evening.

This is also a gem of a play; the writing is excellent and it’s excellently performed. It speaks directly to the costs of devotion to a muse. Go see this play.

“Seminar” plays February 16-18 at 8:00, February 19 at 2:00, and February 23-25 at 8:00 at 2920 Paseo, Oklahoma City. For tickets, visit bignoseproductions.org.

Anna Holloway is a local reviewer, preacher, and theatre professional who has worked for many of Oklahoma City’s finest theatre companies. Her print reviews can be found in the Oklahoman from time to time, and she posts on the NewsOK blog occasionally as well. Anna has taught writing skills at OU and is an editor for academic and professional documents.