A writer writing about writers – it’s a concept which, on the surface, can’t help sounding slightly self-indulgent. Yet this is the exact undertaking of Theresa Rebeck in her play, Seminar, about a tutor group of aspiring young writers led by a famous author. At best, this kind of premise holds the promise of an interesting meditation on the nature of writing and writers themselves; at worst, it risks carving an insubstantial story out of pretentious material. Unfortunately, this production by Hampstead Theatre veers towards the latter.
The play has been a hit with audience since its highly-praised first run on Broadway in 2011 – and I suspect this is largely owing to its central character, Leonard. An embittered, once-famous author with a murky past, he’s now a scathingly critical writing teacher who systematically douses the hopes of his frustratingly unworldly pupils. It’s a character description likely to appeal to male actors of reasonable stature, and here, the role is authoritatively taken up by Roger Allam.
But if even the starring role seems tinged with cliches, the rest of the play is positively riddled with them. Sat in a Manhattan apartment optimistically clutching their drafts, which Leonard spends the first act lambasting – ‘I’m not even making it through your first sentence’ – his students are already pigeon-holed into stereotypes. There is the educated but inexperienced Kate; flirtatious Izzy, who uses her assets to get ahead and turns the preppy Douglas starry-eyed; and the more reserved Martin, who ends up rebelling against Leonard’s merciless critiques.
The second act is set in Leonard’s flat and probes his character more deeply. After Kate’s seduction by Leonard – a predictable meeting of innocence and experience – the immaturely intense Martin, well played by Bryan Dick, resolves to unearth the skeletons in Leonard’s closet. At this point, the play takes a promising turn, and we learn that Leonard’s attitude is born out of a self-loathing disillusionment. But it seems that this is the extent of the play’s character development: we are left with little more to uncover, hence ending on a rather dull, anti-climactic note.
Terry Johnson’s production is slick, if slightly too safe, though an unnecessary interval does no favours to the play’s slow momentum. The performances are uniformly solid, alerting us more to the flaws of their source material. It’s a play which takes a big subject and poses big questions – but instead of tackling the challenges it sets itself, it ends up ignoring them in favour of a very basic narrative.
Seminar is ultimately an unextraordinary and unimaginative piece of theatre. The overall praise it has received both on Broadway and in this production might paint a different picture, but I think this has been more reflective of the calibre of the actors than that of the writing – for it amounts to a script that Leonard, if truly worth his salt, would surely have rejected himself.