'Seminar' is a high-value night of theater

| Monday, Jan. 28, 2013, 8:59 p.m.


If PBS were shopping for a sitcom to produce, Theresa Rebeck's “Seminar” would be a good place to start.

It's sharp, funny and filled with the kinds of observations, opinions and characters that appeal to those of us who subscribe to The New Yorker and often dip into the stories and articles that fill the spaces around its cartoons.

Rebeck comes with stellar credits. Her plays are often produced on Broadway and at regional theaters. But at the moment, she's most widely known as the creator of “Smash!,” a show in its second season on NBC.

“Seminar,” which opened Friday night at City Theatre, focuses on four young aspiring writers and the somewhat faded and disgraced literary rock star they have hired to mentor and coach them.

Each of them has paid Leonard $5,000 for 10 sessions during which he will critique and hopefully improve their writing and maybe give their fledgling careers a boost.

None of them is hoping to write mysteries, thrillers or romances. The creation of literature — books that win the National Book Award , short stories featured in The New Yorker— is the stuff their dreams are made of.

They're not an untalented lot. But each is burdened with individual defenses or attitudes that make him or her recognizable, interesting and often very funny.

Douglas, the most successful and pretentious of the group, is just returned from a prestigious writer's colony and sprinkles his observations about the “interiority” and “exteriority” of the landscape and how his latest work ended up “more tonally.”

Kate feels protective about her one special short story that she has been writing and rewriting for six years.

Izzy is the pragmatic, using connections with Leonard to jump-start her career.

Martin is reluctant to share his work, particularly after Leonard shreds that of the first volunteers with vicious, impatient attacks that he sees as tough-love interventions.

Rebeck's strength is in her dialogue that's peppered with references that make audiences laugh and feel like knowledgeable insiders.

She creates characters that are familiar, but still reveal surprises along the way.

Director Tracy Brigden keeps “Seminar” moving forward with a snappy pace that brings the show to its meaningful conclusion in just over 90 minutes with no intermission. She has assembled a cast of players who comfortably inhabit their roles.

Daniel Gerroll fleshes out the pompous, self-absorbed Leonard with rapid bursts of sharp put-downs and barely conceived contempt. He doesn't get past the first semicolon in Kate's story before demolishing her work and her ego.

As Kate, Rebecca Harris wallows in self-pity, devouring cookie dough and passivity before asserting herself and her talent.

Charles Socarides is delightfully insecure as Martin, emitting the aura of someone who feels outclassed in the company he keeps.

Nadia Gan's Izzy energizes the proceedings with her sexual romps that destabilize relationships and create tension.

Scenic designer Tony Ferrieri offers support with solutions that allow a swift change of location from Kate's huge, well-appointed Upper West Side apartment and Leonard's shabbier, but equally comfortable and book-filled, Greenwich Village apartment.

Ultimately, everyone gets something of value from this “Seminar,” whether it's new insights, a career push or simply a witty and engaging evening of theater.

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or acarter@tribweb.com.

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