The pessimistic professor, Leonard, featured in Theresa Rebbeck’s script, Seminar, is a role that requires a powerful actor. Both the late Alan Rickman, and Jeff Goldblum starred as the domineering writer on Broadway.
Jonathan Sachs plays the washed up Leonard in InnerMission Productions’ staging of the verbally vicious comedy. From his opening moments, he stands as a force to be reckoned with.
In a Manhattan apartment, four rising authors pay $5,000 to take a ten-week writing class taught by Leonard. Martin (Alex Guzman), Kate (Samantha Ginn), Izzy (Dana Wing Lau) and Douglas (Robert Malave) expect to be inspired and motivated to become even better storytellers. What they soon realize is that Leonard is an extremely harsh instructor who has no problem insulting his students and their work.
Rebeck’s writing has many comical moments; often in a shocking way. Schadenfreude abounds as Leonard gets an almost perverse pleasure in saying whatever is on his mind. His behavior could potentially offend sensitive audience members, but it is a credit to Rebeck and Sachs that he remains to be a captivating presence.
Sachs often speaks in a rat-a-tat style that works quite well for an unconventional intellectual like Leonard. His profane line readings are so sharp-witted, that it’s hard to feel guilty for laughing at his behavior.
Some of his most humane moments are towards the end when his followers learn about his private life. Sachs gives a lengthy monologue that is humorous, bleak and a little bit informative.
Guzman, Lau and Malave are clever and sometimes snarky as the “scholars” hoping to be rewarded for their classes with Leonard. Their interactions with him are very amusing, especially when they delve deeper into the lessons.
The most problematic role that Rebeck has created is the student whose apartment is being used for the seminars, Kate. Rebeck writes her as a spoiled and intelligent feminist who turns out to be comprised of unusual contradictions.
Some of the revelations about Kate add more insight into her character, but there is at least one twist, about halfway through the production, that feels contrived and unrealistic.
Also, while the relationship between her and Martin is interesting, their “will they or won’t they” sexual tension hits some familiar beats. To be fair, Rebeck’s subplot does take some interesting turns, especially during the resolution.
Elevating the more questionable material is Ginn. Her sense of humor and fierce anger gives Kate an edgy quality that might not have been possible with another performer.
Co-artistic director of InnerMission Productions, Kym Pappas, directs in a way that lets viewers feel like they are also being taught by Leonard. With seats both in front and right behind the stage, many might feel like they are part of the action.
While the set is spare, Michael McKeon has words from Rebeck’s text written all over the theatre space. This is a pretty creative choice to visually depict the subject of the play.
Co-Artistic Director, Carla Nell, incorporates songs such as “Paperback Writer,” “We Built This City” and Leroy Anderson’s instrumental piece, “The Typewriter,” throughout the theatrical experience. Her music selections liven the evening and are sometimes used in ironic ways.
Rebeck does not seem to be making a point about the art of composition, but more about how writing can impact other people. The students and Leonard have bleak observations about the literate world. Yet, their comments are generally more of a reflection of their own jealousy and aggravation. Her choice forces theatregoers to think about how each person is affected by their passion.
Seminar is not afraid to be brutally comedic, and those that enjoy wickedly sharp jokes should visit the Diversionary Black Box Theatre. Leonard might not be the most civil mentor out there, but he knows how to create a twistedly absorbing class.