The Rousuck Review: "Seminar" at Fells Point Corner Theatre | WYPR

The Rousuck Review: "Seminar" at Fells Point Corner Theatre

Nov 17, 2014

From left to right: Michael Zemarel, Anne Shoemaker, Alex Smith, Cassandra Dutt, Eric C. Stein
Credit Chelsea Dove

J. Wynn Rousuck reviews Seminar, which continues at Fells Point Corner Theatre through December 7.

The Rousuck review of "Seminar" at Fells Point Corner Theatre.

I’ve taken writing classes. I’ve taught writing classes. I’ve had some tough teachers. I’ve had some students who thought I was a tough teacher.

But, the toughest I’ve known don’t even come close to Leonard, the teacher-for-hire in Theresa Rebeck’s cutting comedy, “Seminar.” Leonard is a big-name novelist-turned-editor who teaches small groups of select writer-wannabes for $5,000 a head.

“Seminar,” which debuted on Broadway in 2011, is the second Theresa Rebeck play to receive its Baltimore premiere this fall. Everyman Theatre opened its season with Rebeck’s “The Understudy.” Creator of the recent NBC TV series, “Smash,” Rebeck creates characters who are passionate about what they do, and whose passions often collide.

The collisions pile up in “Seminar.” The most successful writer of the four students, Douglas, is a pretentious name-dropper, and he’s given a haughty portrayal by Alex Smith. From the start, there’s friction between smug Douglas and insecure Martin, the group’s other male student. Michael Zemarel plays Martin as timid to the point of being a wuss for most of the play. Martin is afraid to share his work; he’s even afraid to comment.

There is also friction between the two female students: Anne Shoemaker’s feminist Kate and Cassandra Dutt’s libidinous Izzy - qualities both actresses ably convey without overdoing it.

The personality conflicts are further ignited by power struggles – most of them easily won by Leonard lording it over his students. It’s not enough for him to be verbally dismissive, he reinforces his disdain by dropping page after page of his students’ writing on the floor.

Playwright Rebeck builds in pointed – often comic -- commentaries on everything from the New York literary scene to academic ethics and gender politics. Everybody, it seems, wants to write fiction these days, but is anybody still reading it? “Seminar” isn’t a play that will send budding writers rushing to their laptops – rushing away is more like it.

Still, most of the characters change – or at least reveal unexpected aspects – before the last word is spoken. Granted, some changes and revelations are more credible than others. And, sexy Izzy essentially remains what she seems at the start.

But at Fells Point Corner Theatre, director Steve Goldklang keeps the interaction and power shifts so lively and the characters so specific, you can almost overlook the fact that the Jane Austen-loving feminist makes a 180-degree turn at the end.

I discovered in the program notes that Theresa Rebeck and I studied with one of the same writing teachers – author Geoffrey Wolff. Thankfully, Mr. Wolff was a gentle and encouraging mentor; he bore no similarities to “Seminar’s” vicious Leonard.

And yet, all of the characters in “Seminar” gain something from their association with their mean-spirited teacher. A bit pat? Yep. Rebeck tends to tie up loose ends. But Fells Point Corner’s production holds your attention in such a tight grasp, this “Seminar” is definitely worth taking.

-- J. Wynn Rousuck