Jeff Goldblum Stars in Seminar
Recasting Smashing's Therese Rebeck's Broadway Hit
By: Charles Giuliano - Apr 20, 2012
By Theresa Rebeck
Directed by Sam Gold
Sets and costumes by David Zinn; lighting by Ben Stanton; music and sound by John Gromada; production manager, Peter Fulbright; production stage manager, Charles Means; associate producers, Matthew Schneider, Wake Up Marconi, Jamie Kay-Phillips and Charles Stone/Ben Limberg; executive producer/general manager, 101 Productions. Presented by Jeffrey Finn, Jill Furman, John N. Hart Jr. and Patrick Milling Smith, Roy Furman, David Ian, David Mirvisch, Amy Nauiokas and James Spry.
The Golden Theater
252 West 45th Street, Manhattan; (212) 239-6200; telecharge.com.
Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.
WITH: Jeff Goldblum (Leonard), Zoe Lister-Jones (Kate), Justin Long (Martin), Jerry O’Connell (Douglas) and Hettienne Park (Izzy).
Seminar by Theresa Rebeck opened on Broadway back in November. There have now been cast changes. Alan Rickman (Leonard), Lily Rabe (Kate), Hamish Linklater (Martin) have been replaced by Jeff Goldblum (Leonard), Zoe Lister-Jones (Kate), Justin Long (Martin). Jerry O’Connell (Douglas) and Hettienne Park (Izzy) continue their roles.
While the British actor Alan Rickman, a master of snarling disdain and ironic turns of phrase, had the marquee star power to fill seats on Broadway, well, Jeff Goldblum as the jaded and nasty writer/ editor/ teacher ain’t chopped liver.
Whatever the casting the glitz and glitter of this tightly woven, one hour and forty minute, one act play is the brilliant writing of Theresa Rebeck.
With her television show Smash confirmed for a second season Rebeck is something of a hot property. After earning cred with a series of superb plays that has rightly earned her the reputation as one of the finest playwrights of her generation she is finally gaining traction and name recognition with a mass audience.
Seminar is Rebeck’s second play to reach Broadway. The first was a comedy about a rare stamp Mauritius four years ago. We covered its premiere at the Huntington Theatre. Then The Understudy at Williamstown Theatre Festival which went on to Off Broadway. As well as Elizabeth Aspenlieder in the one woman show Bad Dates at Shakespeare & Company.
We have come to recognize and appreciate the masterful craft of her plays that combine well defined characters, witty dialogue and surprising plot twists.
It has been simply glorious to have all of these elements and her magnificent vision and imagination playing out during the first season of Smash. Which has been just that. She has taken us behind the scenes in the bitchy, cutthroat process of birthing a Broadway bound musical based on Marilyn Monroe. It has allowed us to appreciate in depth the sweat equity and back stabbing involved in that complex process.
Rebeck will be stepping back from the show next season; hanging in but not writing episodes as she did to launch the series. It is a very different challenge to create episodes week after week in a TV series. Clearly she was up to the task. In spades. But, forgive me, it is a relief to know that she will be returning to a focus on theatre. Unless Hollywood calls.
Rebeck knows her craft inside out. Which is the resource that she brings to Smash. It is also what brilliantly informed the riveting script. While not about theatre this time Rebeck explores the agonies of writing fiction in an emotional rollercoaster that unravels in The Seminar.
Four young aspiring writers fork over five grand each to be brutalized during weekly crit sessions by a burned out, post midcareer, train wreck of a writer/ editor Leonard (Jeff Goldblum).
While linked by their ambitions for careers as writers there are differences in their abilities and strategies. They are competing for the attention and praise of their tutor. In the face of withering criticism they are forced into complex and uneasy mutual support.
Initially the preppy, connected Jerry O’Connell (Douglas) appears to have the inside track. He has enjoyed some success in publishing as well as residencies in prestigious writer's retreats. Justin Long (Martin) has joined the seminar through the recommendation of a writing teacher who was a former associate of Leonard. Justin appears to be the least secure of the group and reluctant to offer his manuscript for scrutiny.
At an earlier stage of his life and career Leonard, like his young students, had been filled with talent, ambition and dreams. He had published novels that were well reviewed leading to grants and residences. Getting by with just enough success to slog along.
Until a scandal, alleged plagiarism, caused his ambitions to write the great American novel to crash and burn. In middle age a bitter, canny survivor he remade himself as a successful magazine writer, specializing in Third World war zone coverage, and a decent editor.
It is what he has cobbled together combined with the life experience and insider savvy that drives the brutal but spot on critiques of his students/ victims. When not verbally flogging and insulting them, often based on reading just a few lines of a story that has taken years of sweat equity, and also shagging his female writers.
Just as, by the way, the aspiring Marilyn, Ivy, in Smash hops in bed with her nightmarish, brilliant director Derek. Rebeck seems to know a lot about the dark side of that aspect of show biz.
When outed as “unethical” by one of his spurned male students Leonard muses about how things have changed. It seems professors are no longer allowed to routinely seduce their students. That takes a lot of fun out of academia.
Hettienne Park (Izzy), a foxy Asian student, is clearly ready, willing and eager to use her body to open doors. Even with an over the hill, slimeball like Leonard. The audience is stunned when she brazenly flashes her boobs to emphasize her slutty opportunism.
That’s just disgusting to Zoe Lister-Jones (Kate) who rants that Leonard is a sexist creep. The seminar meets in the huge, rent controlled New York apartment of her out of town parents. After reading just two lines of her short story about a young girl obsessed with Jane Austen Leonard just blew her away.
After that crash and burn we wonder why Kate hangs in. Particularly when she ends up on the losing end of a crush on Martin. Pleading that he is now homeless (and wants his money back from Leonard) he manages to get taken in as her roommate. Then makes a move on the easy Izzy. Kate is miffed to see them romping around her apartment half naked.
The weekly seminars are disrupted when Leonard has to bounce off on assignments to Rwanda, or Serbia, or wherever. The troops rebel when there is little sign of progress. The seminar is proving to be a disaster on every level from personal to academic.
Bottom line. If you want to be a writer, well, write. You don’t need to fork over five grand to learn that.
There is an ugly confrontation with Leonard outed as a plagiarist, fraud, failed writer, womanizer, and lousy teacher.
Yes, guilty as charged. Leonard launches into a confessional screed. Bares his heart and soul. That alone is worth every penny the aspirants have ponied up. It is sizzling and brilliant. A capsule of the agony of writing for anyone who has aspired to a life of letters. Goldblum was just stunning in this tough and veristic soliloquy. No, I didn’t get to see Rickman, but Goldblum just nailed it.
We won’t spoil the fun by revealing the clever and amusing plot twists.
We urge you to see this terrific play sure to be coming to a regional theatre near you.
As is always the case with a Rebeck play it was a wonderful evening of theatre. I walked out with useful and smart insights about the writing game. But unlike his four suckers, I would never fork over hard cash for pearls of wisdom from a creep like Leonard.
It makes you wonder if there was a Leonard during Rebeck’s student years. If so, she got her money’s worth.
You have to suffer to sing the blues.