Monday, September 16, 2013


Writing about writing is tough. How do you show something that’s so personal and internal? Theresa Rebeck has done it in spades with SEMINAR. Her deliciously poison pen cuts through the crap and exposes the charlatans who claim to be able to judge and teach. Fresh from a Broadway run last year, SEMINAR, now up at Stoneham Theatre (through Sept. 29th), is raucous and ruthless in its sardonic depiction of the “literary pursuit.”

And absolutely true. Having sat through numerous seminars on writing, I can tell you there really are literary lions (with lots of prestigious awards after their names) who, during a seminar, dwell on a first sentence of a student’s work, only the first sentence, frittering away the whole session with tales of their own importance or flights of their own fancy…ruining the writer’s chance for some constructive criticism. Rebeck sends them up royally in SEMINAR.

And she doesn’t spare the know-it-alls in class who wax on about the genius of Lowell’s own Jack Kerouac either…or the female students who sleep with the famous author to further their careers. She has them all for dinner in SEMINAR. And, best of all, we get to eavesdrop on the real “creative process.”

It’s Stoneham’s good fortune to have Liz Hayes in the role of the up and coming writer suffering the slings and arrows that Rebeck herself dodged along the path to her success (on Broadway, in film and television). Hayes is a deft comedienne and she reminded me of Rebeck right from her first hilarious obscenity!

(My editor thinks I should include a disclaimer because I have a slight bias with SEMINAR. Rebeck had her start in Boston in the ‘80s when we weathered the nasty critics together, our plays often on the same bill. As you can see, I’ve switched sides… always mindful, I hope, of the need to be constructive.)

Director Weylin Symes gets fine comic work from Jesse Hinson as the pompous “golden boy” who is sure a piece of his will be accepted by a fist rate magazine, from Jordan Ahnquist as the sensitive guy who’d rather be kind than brutally honest to his fellow writers…and from Sophorl Ngin as the opportunist who will do what she has to do to get ahead.

You really need the novelist teaching this seminar to be a dangerous charmer. Christopher Tarjan certainly has the disdain down but, alas, not quite enough charisma to keep these writers coming back to him for advice after he’s cut them to the quick. Then again, I saw the show on opening day. It may shake out when they run it a bit.

SEMINAR brought me back to the glorious days when we were innocent of the slaughter ahead, when we loved to write for the love of writing. Theater held the promise of wonder and surprise and that’s still true. (I don’t know how people cope without it!)

I especially loved the “in” jokes in SEMINAR but the Stoneham audience laughed in abundance and I’m pretty sure they weren’t all playwrights. SEMINAR works whether you’ve been there or not because we’ve all felt the sting of criticism. It’s a universal. And Rebeck is top of her game at making us laugh at ourselves.