Sunday, January 27, 2013

Theatre review: "Seminar" at City Theatre

Titling a play Seminar may seem risky, given the implication of an intellectual gathering. And when people learn that, in it, Teresa Rebeck has written about fiction writers discussing writing, people could conclude that this is going to be meandering talk with nowhere to go.

But experiencing it at City Theatre, you’ll soon see sparks catch fire and find yourself engaged. Rebeck delves into what motivates people into thinking that assembling words into something clearly meaningful is the height of creativity. She reminds everyone that writers can seeth with passion, that putting such urgency on a page can be a burning need not just to express oneself but also to communicate. She has created something full of vitality, capably provoking thought about what lies beneath the vulnerable surfaces of seeming innocence. Talented visiting actors do it all justice

This is promoted as a comedy and, as it begins, it feels like fluff. Rebeck seems to have found it necessary to heighten popular appeal by peppering her dialogue with non-stop profanity. Later she also stuffs the sentences with the characters’ vigorous sex-lives revealed in action and talk. These gratuitous elements do no harm, but it looks as if she wanted to make sure audiences are entertained while she delivers her trenchant observations. Maybe she needed to convince producers and backers that, to go public, it had to sell tickets.

Being in public, fame is the goal for Douglas, Martin, Kate and Izzy. They’ve hired the much-experienced Leonard to coach them, critique them and stimulate them into success, given his own triumphs in earlier days. At first, Leonard seems mostly like a soul-less prick. But as time and the play progresses, his insightful, well-conceived complex dimensions emerge. So too does Rebeck move away from slick, designed-to-be amusing dialogue to capably go deeper into what these people feel and think.

Daniel Gerroll clearly stands out as Leonard, indelibly urgent, dynamic and perceptively realized.

Heightening the experience, scenic designer Tony Ferrieri has created a remarkable double-sided set that adds to the solidity of what Rebeck says and does. And Tracy Brigden’s direction gets everything right.

In the course of the vibrant and sometimes nasty exchanges that surge through the spaces among them, Leonard tells young would-bes that most people don’t care about writers. That, to them, we writers barely exist, even as many of us live on the margins of financial security and our solitary efforts seldom take shape in actual print.

Or consider how, in other parts of our city, less-than-professional theatre companies devote many program book paragraphs to credits of actors and people behind the scenes but include nothing about the artists who created those scenes out of thin air. (“Look, I made a hat, where there never was a hat,” Sondheim). Such ignorance remains wide-spread and distressing.

Like me, most writers live and breathe in shadows. What do you know about me, after all?

By the way, do you notice by-lines?

Seminar continues through February 10th at City Theatre, 1300 Bingham Street, Pittsburgh, , South Side. 412/431-CITY (2489) or

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