“Who gives a shit about a character with no interior life?” asks writing seminar instructor Leonard, beautifully played by Evan Parry. This is the first statement the brute makes with which his students, Douglas (Peter Spearman), Martin (John Black), Kate (Charley Boyd) and Izzy (Sierra Garland) can actually agree.
Director Robbie Thomas and The Village Rep Co. bring the regional premier of Theresa Rebeck’s Broadway play, Seminar, to Charleston for a very limited run. There are four performances left. The theater company’s reputation for intelligent, modern, witty, and provocative productions continues with this fast-paced marriage between intellectual rhetoric and emotional vulnerability.
Leonard’s lion-like reputation as a writer, instructor, and editor has hundreds of students seeking a spot in his intimate four-student, ten-week seminar. Undivided attention from this master of fiction writing is presumably worth $5,000. To be admitted into the seminar seems to be the necessary stepping-stone to publication in the literary dog-eat-dog world. But the students have no idea that the first dog to take a chomp out of their self-esteem and self-worth is, in fact, Leonard. Instinctively, when the Alpha attacks, the rest of the pack circles.
Boyd’s Kate is the first victim. Her story’s character references Jane Austen, and Leonard will have none of it. Existential crisis ensues, and we fear for the poor woman’s recovery. Kate’s utter heartbreak mixed with healthy doses of fury is played so well by Boyd that the audience feels a bit voyeuristic: this character’s interior life is carved open and on the table. Boyd is brilliant. So is, we discover, Kate’s writing.
The arrogant and self-confident Douglas is portrayed effortlessly by Spearman. The name-dropping, well-connected student seems to have lived his life unchecked as he drops names like “Indigo Jones” instead of Inigo Jones and “interiority and exteriority” instead of — well, those aren’t even words.
Leonard not only checks Douglas but also reveals the cheapness of his work, suggesting Hollywood over The New Yorker. Spearman subtly and swiftly shows us that Douglas does care, and we understand the fear that has been posing as arrogance, i.e. his “interiority.”
Izzy likes to write. Izzy likes sex. Apparently, Izzy is very good at both, which provides enough sexual tension to get the dogs circling again. Rebeck assures us first that Izzy is a talented writer, which helps us to forgive, a little bit, her Salome seductions. Garland introduces us to our new favorite super-smart slutty BFF — her performance is charming and graceful.
Black hits the local stage with yet another perfect performance. Martin’s internal life is a mystery, as he is the one student most reticent about his work. He refuses to turn anything into Leonard. His “exteriority” seems obvious: he is very smart, intuitive, and likes sex nearly as much as Izzy.
Martin locks horns with Leonard right out of the gate, and since he lacks a writing sample to show for himself, his motivation to win a spot in the seminar is unrevealed until the bittersweet moments of the last scene.
Everybody hates Leonard: the characters, the audience, even Leonard himself. Parry is a college professor by day, so his role as the seminar leader isn’t a stretch; however, Leonard’s MO is. As a master of language, Leonard wastes no time mincing words. He keeps empathy and truth far apart from each other. Like Douglas, he has a reason for his arrogance, and his tough shell is finally shed with Martin’s help. Perhaps the seminar is, in fact, worth the time, money, and aggravation.
The set, Kate’s posh upper-West Side NYC apartment, is beautifully designed by Keely Enright and Dave Reinwald, and constructed by Dave Reinwald and Mark Chestnut.
While Leonard’s seminar admits only four students, Thomas’ Seminar has plenty of room for many more. It won’t even cost you $5,000. As Kate says, “If he liked my story, that would make him smart.” And we like this story.