|David Prete, Kaythi Win, Matthew Kropshot, Sarah Haas & Jacob Soss|
Douglas smacks of pedigree: famous uncle playwright from Harvard, his own la-tee-dah college degree, a sure-fire route to a New Yorker publication, and a tendency to drop words like “interiority and exteriority” into conversations. Izzy can write well (and knows it) and just wants to be famous as fast as possible writing sex-filled novels (and putting herself wearing little on the covers). Kate has been working on a story for six years and has received ‘encouraging’ comments at expensive summer, writing workshops like “much better than most” and “nice things in it.” Martin cannot pay his rent and is afraid to share any of his writing (and he already hates Douglas after five minutes of the first seminar).
And they have all paid $5000 for ten sessions with a well-known author and editor, Leonard, who would rather be either tramping through a war zone like Somalia or in bed with one of his hot, female students than stuck in a room with these no-names.
In a wonderful mirroring of life imitating art, four aspiring actors and students of San Jose State University, College of Humanities and Arts, join forces with well-known, Bay Area director and actor, Amy Resnick, to stage Theresa Rebeck’s 2011 Broadway play, Seminar, about four post-grads hoping to learn from a master how to make it big in fiction-writing. The weekly class -- held in Kate’s upper west end, NYC apartment (9 rooms at $800/month rent control rent) – becomes a scene of shifting alliances and intense battles, romantic trysts and jealousies, as well as moments of unexpected glory and of utter humiliation. And all occurs amidst much drama and brouhaha of being twenty-something in search of self, fame, and sex.
Familiar with stage and film companies from New York to Los Angeles, veteran actor, director, and writer David Prete joins the otherwise SJSU student cast as Leonard, the for-hire writing instructor for the four would-be authors. His late-forties Leonard drips in egocentrism as he enters in his tight jeans, black leather coat, and grey, silk scarf – more eager to talk about his recent forays into war-torn zones of poverty and his near-death experiences there than to pay much attention to the students or their writing (that is, of course, except for the bosom-showing and totally hot Izzy already giving him the eye). Leonard lives up to his reputation as “a little rough,” but without the “a little.” Mr. Prete is deliciously brutal in his sarcasm, demonstrating it at once after reading the first half-dozen words of Kate’s six-years-in-the-making short story. “I see the semi-colon, and I know more is coming but I am not sure I want to go there,” he blandly remarks, handing her back the masterpiece-in-long-making. At the same time, one quick read of Izzy’s hastily written, two-pager sends a nearly visible, electric charge ripping through his body as he locks eyes with the paper’s author (already licking her lips and leaning in for his better view of her low neckline). “A sexual edge ... the tone of Asiatic exoticism,” he gushes, just before the two head out for a post-class, hastily arranged date.
One by one, Leonard takes on the student writers in each week’s foray, dropping in lines left and right that Theresa Rebeck has awarded his character about writers and writing. Many of the one-liners are loaded with self-loathing for his own profession by someone who is supposedly a master of the art. (“Writers in their natural state are about as civilized as feral cats.”) But readers time and again come off even worse. (“The problem with being a writer is that all your readers are human-beings” [the last word then repeated with a tone of deep disgust].) As the play progresses, the playwright does release Leonard from his narrow range of erotic cynicism and cliché-like pronouncements and allows Mr. Prete to uncover deeper, more revealing layers of Leonard – done so with visceral emotion by the actor as he exposes who the man might really be behind his curtain of Mr. Too-Cool-and-Sexy.
In her role as director, Amy Resnick has taken this group of student actors and shaped them into a fine, much-accomplished ensemble. Each has moments to show off a range of nicely honed skills as they deliver many of the funnier moments of this often tense comedy that works hard (sometimes too hard) also to be a thought-provoking commentary on writers and their search for the perfect manuscript.
Matthew Kropschot is the ever-wanting-to-please-and-impress Douglas, whose casually crossed legs, plaid and bow ties, and nods of intense interest to anything Leonard is saying at the moment smack of a guy just biding his time to the fame he believes is already his to grab. Kaythi Win exudes desire for any and all men around her as a path for her Izzy to do real-time research for the paperbacks she will soon be cranking out by the dozens for riches and talk-show appearances – while at the same time, there is a palpable vulnerability when she sometimes drops for a minute her defenses. Martin (Jacob Soss) -- who is reluctant to show Leonard his writing -- does like to be constantly in the spotlight with continuous outbursts on any subject but himself, each full of volume, vigor, and often vehemence and with flaying hands and arms even more active than his ranting mouth. But Martin also has expressive eyes that increasingly give away some deeper passion and plan that is going unexpressed.
Rounding out the cast in particularly noteworthy and impressive fashion is Sarah Haas as Kate. Kate is the first to be rejected outright by Leonard and done so without his reading past a few words that lead him to condemn her as stuck in Jane-Austin-like sentiment. Kate still is willing to take on Leonard’s sexist attitudes and confront his bias against women writers, but she also retreats into ice cream, chips, and homemade cookie dough after his repeated ridicule. (“I am a terrible writer, and I am committed to get fat.”) Ms. Haas displays over the course of Kate’s journey to prove her writing prowess an incredibly wide range of emotion and expression – comedic and serious – shown in vocal acrobatics, subtle and not-at-all-subtle facial poses, and an energy that is contagious whether she is bouncing about the room or just sitting still. Her Kate is a joy to watch from beginning to end.
This university production has a big-stage, uptown look and feel to it due to a stellar creative team. Andrea Bechert’s set is beautifully attired as a ritzy New York flat with much art of masters on the walls, fine furniture of leather, and peeps into other, well-appointed rooms and hallways. A later (and cleverly accomplished) shift to Leonard’s office is crammed with mementoes of his world travels. The lighting of Steven Mannshardt shows off well both settings and separates in just the proper ways the many scenes of the play. Anthony Sutton’s canny sound design calls on classic rock often with a tongue-fully-in-cheek to introduce scenes. Last but far from least, Cassandra Carpenter captures the quirky and defining essence of each character’s personality through her designed costumes (and notes a progressing transformation of Kate with necklines that hilariously dip ever broader and deeper).
There are times when Theresa Rebeck’s script feels a little too predictable and too precious (with its inserted remarks about writers and writing), but Amy Resnick and this talented mixture of her professional and university team have come up with a Seminar that certainly does San Jose State University’s College of Humanities and the Arts proud and is well worth a visit to the Hammer Theatre Center.
Rating: 4 E
Seminar continues its short run through March 25, 2017 at San Jose State University’s Hammer Theatre Center, 101 Paseo De San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets are available at http://www.sjsu.edu/hammertheatre/ or by calling (408) 924-8501.
Photo Credit: Marissa McPeak