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.
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Dave Begel
Published March 2, 2015
"Come Back" is the work of local playwright Neal Haven, one getting its world premiere at In Tandem Theatre. It's a play about the grief of losing a loved one and tries to find humor in the situation.
Published March 1, 2015
There's a song they sing when there is a funeral in some of the rural parishes of Louisiana. "The graveyard ain't got no memories," they sing. It's not just the dead who are afraid of the memories, but the living are fearful as well, and it can be even tougher on those left behind if they try to make those memories clear. That is the essence of "The Train Driver," the powerful drama by Athol Fugard that opened over the weekend at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre.
Published Feb. 28, 2015
Being in sixth grade can be a real problematic time, full of the turbulence of hopes and fears all at once. First Stage captures the whole thing in "Big Nate: The Musical."
Published Feb. 26, 2015
After losing a half-million-dollar judgement, the City of Milwaukee is looking at ways to avoid paying the money. One of the solutions being explored is granting Silk a license in exchange for dropping the lawsuit.
Published Feb. 24, 2015
Sports movies are among the greatest films ever made, so what better time to list the top 14 sports movies of all time than right after the Oscars?
Published Feb. 20, 2015
"God of Carnage" is a biting comedy about two couples who turn from civilized to animals before our very eyes. But when two of the actors can't remember their lines, the evening turns out to be a real dud.
Published Feb. 19, 2015
The owners Silk Exotic today won a big victory in federal court as a jury awarded them a judgement of almost half a million dollars for revenue lost because the city would not grant them a license for a Downtown strip club.
Published Feb. 19, 2015
Domestic violence is something that most of us think doesn't touch those close to us. But in fact this familial violence cuts across all economic, social, geographic and ethnic boundaries.
Published Feb. 17, 2015
Bo Ryan has been coaching for 30 years in Wisconsin and he's had success wherever he's been. What's more, he's done it with a unique coaching style that features a deliberate offense and a tenacious defense that has the Badgers ranked among the best teams in the country.
Published Feb. 15, 2015
"Bare: A Pop Opera" is a play that seems to have some potential. But when you actually see it, the story seems so dated that it's hard to grab onto the message.