Seminar – Theatre Review: Actors Theatre of Phoenix: Black Theatre Troupe

Seminar poster

When four hopeful writers in New York with varying degrees of talent club together and pay $5,000 each for a ten-week writing seminar, no one gets what they paid for.   That’s the basis of the very funny 2011 Broadway comedy Seminar by Theresa Rebeck.   It’s the one that earned Alan Rickman high praise and was generally well received by New York area critics, plus it’s also the play with which Actors Theatre of Phoenix has chosen to open its exciting new 2014-15 season.

No longer the wandering Nomads of the valley, Actors Theatre has finally pitched tent in the excellent Black Theatre Troupe building on Washington Street which is where it will now remain, and that’s a major plus.   Not only is the theatre an outstanding setting for any play, the comfortable, stadium style seating guarantees a good view no matter where you sit, plus that sense of intimacy and the feeling of a real interaction with the players – something only a live performance can give – is always present.

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The setting is the luxury Upper West Side apartment of Kate (Kerry McCue).   This is where the other three aspiring talents will gather, subject to the derision and the criticism of the paid professor, Leonard (David Barker).   And Leonard never holds back.   “What a soul-sucking waste of words that was!” Leonard declares of Kate’s story, the one that has taken her six years to complete.   It has taken her six years because everyone kept telling her it was good but that it needed more work; so for six years she kept working on it, and within seconds, Leonard, in his customary style of non-diplomacy, destroys it along with Kate’s already fragile confidence.

With Douglas (Andy Cahoon), Leonard sees something resembling potential talent, though he’s not quite there; not yet.   Douglas has something of a head start;  he’s the nephew of a Harvard playwright, plus he’s already achieved moderate publishing success, but none of that matters to Leonard.   “The work is hollow,” the professor tells Douglas.   “I’d think about Hollywood.”

Then there’s Izzy (Kim Richard) the buxom blonde whose attractiveness and overtly sexual manner is something she unashamedly uses in order to keep moving forward to that ultimate goal of getting published.   Leonard likes the energy in her writing as well as a few of her other talents.

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Martin (Will Hightower) is Kate’s old school friend and it’s probable that he’s the real talent in the room, except no one will ever know as he’s either too shy or too scared to read any of his work aloud.   Martin is also broke and temporarily moves in to one of Kate’s spare rooms, then shares it with the lusty Izzy for a few weeks of mind-blowing sex until it’s revealed that she’s also been sleeping with the professor.   When Martin accuses Izzy of lying to him about her time with Leonard, Izzy defends with, “It wasn’t much of a lie.   No one believed it but you.

And finally there’s Leonard himself;  the savage, literary monster who slices and dices almost everything presented before him, though surprises when he praises something he feels might be of worth.   When he exits the room until the next seminar he often departs with, “See you next week, cowards,” or “I’m going to Somalia tomorrow, so I’ll see you pussies in two weeks.”   “Maybe someone’ll shoot him,” Kate dryly suggests after Leonard is out of earshot.

Playwright Theresa Rebeck’s script is razor sharp.   Her dialog gives individual voice to each person where the rhythm and style of all five characters becomes familiar as the play progresses.   Close your eyes and without knowing the voice you’d know which student was speaking by the use of words and the style of delivery.   Though sometimes there are shortcuts.

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It never rings true how quickly Professor Leonard can sum up a complete opinion on a writer’s work and rant in grand style about it after giving the essay only a perfunctory glance, plus considering that the play is about writers and revels in the use – and occasionally the misuse – of wordplay, it’s surprising that much of Rebeck’s clever dialog is peppered with the continual use of such extreme bad language delivered at a TV sit-com style fever pitch.   In fact, the play’s volume often feels in danger of hitting eleven when it should have stopped at ten.   It doesn’t take long for everyone to start shouting, especially once Leonard has entered the room and the profanities hit the fan.

But Rebeck also gives us great lines to quote, ranging from a twist on the familiar – “I would say get a room,” Kate suggests, regarding the marathon copulating habits of Izzy and Martin, “But they already have a room” – to the eloquence of Leonard’s laugh-out-loud description of what he can see the planets in the cosmos do while Izzy performs oral sex on him.

The doubts, the fears and the power play of all are well presented by a terrific ensemble under director Ron May’s guidance.   Each actor establishes his or her character so well so quickly, you might find yourself smiling at something you expect one of them to say in advance of them actually saying it.   Jeff Thomson’s excellent scenic design of Kate’s blinding white and somewhat spacious New York apartment contrasts well with the final scene that takes us to Leonard’s dark brown and cramped quarters.

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Running at a non-stop 100 minutes without intermission and sharp scene transitions that never slow the flow, Rebeck’s Seminar may not be quite the challenging comedy of intellectual wordplay you expected after the earlier Broadway hype, but it’s still great fun and more importantly it’s a promise of the standard of what is yet to come from Actors Theatre of Phoenix at its new, permanent home at Black Theatre Troupe.

For more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the Actors Theatre website.

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