“Writers are not people,” asserts Kate (Cara Mantella) in Theresa Rebeck’s play Seminar at Actor’s Express as the world the students once knew begins to crumble. An examination of the human spirit and the creative process, the play focuses on a group of aspiring writers who hire a tough teacher with Leonard (Andrew Benator), a once fiction writer who now teaches writing seminars and rips apart the students’ manuscripts in a tough love fashion.
Whether Leonard truly wants his students to doubt themselves is debatable, but he treats them as if he does. Why? The critics will be worse he explains later to them after excoriating almost all of their work.
Set in present day New York City, the play unfolds during the writing sessions in Kate’s family’s apartment. Along with Kate, the other students, Douglas (David Plunkett), Martin (Barrett Doyle) and Izzy (Bryn Striepe), face the gauntlet of Leonard’s acerbic criticism, which actually does push them to improve their craft by the end. Getting there, though, is a circus of accusations, lies, jealously and sex, setting up a few hilarious situations.
Benator plays the layered Leonard with a subtle sense of humanity that makes itself known at the right moment. He plays a man who has been battered by the realities of the educational and publishing world, who uses a rough exterior to hide own inner pain. Not afraid to speak the truth, he is wry and devilishly funny, especially when reading the manuscripts.
Each of the students brings unique personalities. Plunkett’s Martin is the highlight of the cast as he plays the proper and talented writer. His mannerisms and facial expressions compliment the lines of the characters, creating an entertaining character to watch. Both of the actresses (Mantella and Striepe) handle their parts well and display sharp comedic timing, especially Mantella’s physical comedy with the mixer. Doyle, however, plays the same basic character he has played recently in other productions and doesn’t get the chance to show the emotional depth he displayed in 100 Saints You Should Know a few seasons ago at Actor’s Express.
Phillip Male has created a fitting set for the Upper West Side apartment. Complementing the design are interesting costumes by Elizabeth Rasmusson (the character’s personalities are apparent at first sight) and lighting design by Mary Parker.
The play itself is somewhat cerebral, and the text alone can be rather dry at times. Its success rises and falls with the cast. While there are moments where this cast pulls off the needed bravado and depth, there are other times where it doesn’t reach its potential.
More than just a play about writers, anyone who has worked to perfect a talent or craft will be able to relate to the characters in the play. Directed by Freddie Ashley, the production plays at Actor’s Express through June 16, 2013. For tickets and more information, please visit the theater’s website. The show’s runtime is approximately an hour and a half with no intermission.
– Kenny Norton