Seminar, a new play by Theresa Rebeck playing at the Golden Theater, is a sharp, funny character piece and particularly satisfying as a twenty-something New Yorker. The play follows four aspiring writers who hire Leonard (played by Alan Rickman), a well respected author and editor, to help hone their talent and, more importantly, provide them with connections that will lead to a professional career. It is set almost entirely in a monstrous, rent controlled upper west side apartment and the students are each three-dimensional caricatures of young New Yorkers. I felt I personally knew each and every one of them, which is the trademark of an effective marriage between good writing and good acting. The characters each struggle with their respective ‘talents’ as their teacher pitilessly critiques both their writing and their personalities, but ultimately giving them what they want: a path on which to direct their careers. While superficially Seminar is about the difficulties of being a struggling ‘artist’, trying to create something meaningful and original; similar to the no nonsense Leonard, it is actually much more about the struggle to balance naive ambition and pride with the realities of building a career in an increasingly competitive field. It’s a struggle faced by nearly every young college graduate I know in New York and while Seminar does not remotely limit itself to a New York audience, it certainly comes from a New York perspective, set unambiguously in New York scenes and with New York characters.
Rickman’s character is arrogant and brutish, ultimately masking a lack of “skin”; an inability to deal with the criticism and soullessness of the publishing world. Rickman should be credited for showing the audience Leonard’s sensitivity while still maintaining his rough exterior. Often such ‘tough on the outside’ characters end up artificially dropping their defenses in order to let the audience in, but at no point in Seminar does Leonard’s behavior seem out of character while still leaving the audience feeling they understand his insecurities and bitterness. This is partly possible due to Martin’s character (played expertly by Hamish Linklater). The insecure and talented Martin is portrayed as a younger version of Leonard, not yet embittered by years of half successes and little recognition. Martin, unlike Leonard, wears his heart on his sleeve and is almost unbelievably naive. It is through Martin that we come to understand Leonard’s character and between the two of them see the necessity of rising above ego and naivety in order to learn from others and achieve success and comfort.