MTG's "Seminar" is a Tough Class
“There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and open a vein.”
This famous quote, which has been attributed to a bunch of different writers, including Hemingway, is the best summation I’ve ever found for the writing process. And I’m sure all of the characters in Theresa Rebeck’s play Seminar would agree. In the Madison Theatre Guild’s production, which runs through Oct. 19, a quartet of struggling scribes have signed up for a private writing tutorial with a notoriously mercurial and condescending luminary of the publishing world. The feedback they receive week after week is soul-crushing, but it is also illuminating, ultimately revealing much more about the teacher than the students.
Each of the wannabe writers has their own strategy for succeeding in the cut-throat world of contemporary lit, starting with getting good reviews and access to important connections from their snide prof Leonard (a hard-edged Donavon Armbruster). Izzy (a miscast Madeline Cook) plans to use her feminine wiles to get ahead and isn’t above sleeping with anyone who might help her. Douglas (a bland Edric Johnson) is supposed to be an egomaniac, a darling of literary colonies and residencies, and an aficionado of buzzwords in literary theory. It also doesn’t hurt that he has a famous relative in the business. Kate (a no-nonsense Megan Siebert) is a slightly spoiled feminist and a grad from an elite private college. She hasn’t gotten the same accolades for her writing in the real world, even though she’s been working on the same story for years. Easily defeated, she resorts to binging on ice cream, potato chips and raw cookie dough when her story is dismissed by her almighty mentor. (Like women do?) Finally, there’s the too-cool-to-care Martin (an understated Patrick O’Hara) who puts up a good front, but is so frightened of rejection that he doesn’t share his work with the class until he’s forced to.
While all of these students get points for earnestness, none gets out their claws like “feral cats,” drawing blood as they give each other faint praise and “constructive criticism.” If this dynamic had been explored more, it would have created much more interesting power shifts in the play. Instead, the passive students simply rebel against their teacher by calling out his own frailties, both as a writer and as a person.
By the time of Leonard’s reckoning, the audience is actually happy to see him squirm. Armbruster’s delivery of negative feedback feels sadistic from the start. Though the character seems to pay little attention to his pupils and their work — not even bothering to learn their names — his cruelty seems intentional. So when he embarks on a long monologue, listing his personal disappointments, failures, transgressions, and nagging fear of his lack of talent, it is revelatory and humanizing. Armbruster’s sheepishness after he has laid himself bare to the students, who he insists he actually holds in high esteem, is a nice reversal. And the professor’s offer to edit one writer’s promising novel is a satisfying arc because the gamesmanship of the earlier scenes has been removed.
Director Whitney Derendinger is largely handcuffed by a script where very little happens. Stakes feel low. Sexual escapades with interchangeable partners don’t carry much emotional weight. Watching someone reading silently to himself feels like death onstage, and it happens over and over here. (Never mind that it strains credulity to think that a reader can assess an entire novel just by reading the first two or three sentences.)
Similarly, listening to someone critique a piece of fiction in terms that are so bland and nondescript that the audience is unable to even guess at its subject or style — let alone what it might signal about the writer — is completely unsatisfying. Thankfully sound designer Karl Reinhardt does a nice job putting together a playlist for songs to cover many, many scene changes, some of which seem roughly the same length as the rapid fire scenes.
Ultimately the final moments between Armbruster and O’Hara are the most interesting. This is also where the characters’ connection seems the most real. Their shared desperation and obsession with their craft comes through at last, making audiences wish that Martin’s finished novel — or any of his allegedly superlative writing — was waiting for them in the lobby.