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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, Nov. 28, 2014

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The cast of The World's Stage Theatre Company's production of "Seminar."
The cast of The World's Stage Theatre Company's production of "Seminar." (Photo: Nathaniel Schardin and Maria Pretzl)

"Seminar" is cute but goes astray with misdirection

Almost anyone who has ever gone to school, especially at the college level, can relate to a story about the pompous "I'm too good to be doing this" professor who takes a macabre delight in whittling his students down to size.

That’s the essence of "Seminar," the Broadway hit by Theresa Rebeck that opened this week at The World’s Stage Theatre Company and runs through Aug. 31 at the 10th Street Theatre.

The story is about four would-be writers who have paid $5,000 each for a 10-week session with Leonard, a published and formerly popular writer. These four have each paid dearly to have Leonard read their works and suffer the incredible humiliation he seems to love dumping on their heads.

The play is billed as a dark comedy, and the first act is full of cute writing and many funny moments and situations.  

The four students are Kate, a wealthy graduate from Bennington who lives in the glorious apartment where the seminars take place; Douglas, a well-connected writer who has visited many a writer’s colony; Martin, a tortured soul who has tried to get into all those writer’s colonies and failed; and Izzy, a vacuous slut who may not love sex but who clearly understands what a powerful tool it can be.

Leonard, played by a masterful Bryce Lord, quickly draws his viper sword as he reads only Kate’s piece only to the first semicolon before pronouncing it useless. As she tries to retaliate, he offers, "Don’t defend yourself. If you are defending yourself, you aren’t listening."

Kate is the conflicted rock of this group while Izzy, all long legs and sex appeal from Gretchen Mahkorn, lounges on a couch and proclaims to all who will listen, "I am going to be famous." She leaves no doubt that she is willing to use every weapon at her disposal to achieve that fame.

Douglas has a pomposity about him at the beginning that is no match once he comes face to face with Leonard’s bitter act. Martin spends almost the entire play unwilling to let Leonard, or anyone else, read what he has written. By the time he does, it is no surprise that Leonard loves what Martin has done, and you can see the joining of these forces on the horizon.

The World's Stage, under the artistic direction of the dedicated Mahkorn, does justice to this play as an ensemble led by Lord. But just as the play tries to point out that there is a lot to learn about art for all of us, there is a lot to learn about theater for this young cast.

They would all have been well-served to watch Lord find the cracks and crevices of his character, understanding that nobody is all one thing. We all have layers, and Lord is the sight and soul of experiences as he discovers each complicated layer of Leonard.

The biggest hurdle for this production to overcome is the virtual one-note portrayal of Martin by David Rothrock. He is a young actor who has become obsessed with the concept of "stage business" and has decided that grabbing his head and opening his eyes in wonder is the appropriate reaction to everything from great sex to getting kicked out his apartment because he can’t pay the rent. He seems like a television actor suddenly thrust onto a stage to play Hamlet.

James Carrington gives his Douglas some emotional peaks and valleys, but he, too seems to have gone line-by-line in his script and determined what kind of action he would use to accompany each word.

Samantha Martinson has some of the funniest lines as Kate, and she’s got some wonderful timing. But her turn from prim to promiscuous is far too rapid and doesn’t provide any real reason why we should believe she ended up sleeping with Leonard.

And finally there is Izzy, the slattern who puts notches not on her headboard but on the cover of whatever it is she is trying to write. First Leonard falls under her spell, then Douglas – who is rejected – then Martin, who spends a spectacular two weeks in bed with her, and then Leonard once again. The only one who escapes Izzy’s rapacious glare is Kate, and that’s probably only because Izzy didn’t get around to her.

This production is the first time that David Bohn has ever directed a play, and it shows.

One of the pieces of magic we expect out of a director is the ability to take disparate parts and help put them into a cohesive and coherent whole. This production just seems like so many parts all thrown together onto a coffee table somewhere, waiting for a guest to finish the 5,000 piece puzzle.

Bohn had a tremendous resource at hand, Lord, who is both an experienced and able actor and director. Had Bohn at some point sought his counsel, Lord would mostly likely have been a tremendous help.

Watching Lord in this play gives you a wonderful example of how silence is something occasionally best left alone, not something we must rush to fill before the audience grows bored.

Near the end of the play, Lord is explaining the heart of the art of writing a book. "Novels need silence," he says.

True, not just of novels but also of productions of literate and smart comedies.

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