To judge a book by its cover is indecent, according to the old adage.
To tear apart a novel six years in the making after reading the first five words while in a drug-induced daze, however, is ridiculously and hilariously out of line.
This is but a snippet of Theresa Rebeck’s “Seminar,” a comedy playing at the Phoenix Theatre in Indianapolis through Nov. 25.
The production hysterically captures the struggles of artistic creation and its worth in a time when the sanctity of the written word has become ambiguous.
“Seminar” centers on a group of young writers in present-day New York City. Every few weeks the writers meet for a fiction-writing seminar where their works are critiqued and their egos are kept in check.
Kate (Laura Briggeman)—a conceited Bennington College alumna hailing from a presumably wealthy family—hosts the seminars at her luxurious Upper West Side apartment.
Kate is joined by Martin (Samuel Fain), a sympathetic writer reluctant to share his work; Douglas (Neal Eggeson), a preppy, well-connected know-it-all coming from notable literary lineage; and Izzy (Lisa Ermel), a sexually-charged writer intent on achieving her goals no matter the cost.
The writers each pay $5,000 to Leonard (Bill Simmons)—a famous writer-turned-editor—to lead the seminars and critique their works.
Leonard is a harsh, narcissistic and contradictory mentor. He enters every scene heavily intoxicated to the point where he can’t even remember the last thing he read, let alone the names of his students.
Leonard is the central comedic figure of the play. His eccentric and often clueless personality makes him very easy to laugh at.
Leonard’s actions also make him despicable. He is the most sardonic character of the work, constantly berating the writers and smashing their egos.
His harshness is partially justified, though. Leonard makes the comment that the writers cannot simply accept a lie in praise of their works or take praise without criticism.
This philosphy ironically proves relevant for Leonard himself.
Simmons’ tenacity in portraying such a complex character and effectively being able to make him both funny and irksome is spectacular. Leonard is easily the most memorable character in the show.
“Seminar” is able to capture the audience to a shockingly effective degree.
Rebeck’s provocative writing asks the audience very personal questions about artistry, philosophy and ethics.
In particular, Martin often serves as the moral compass of the play, and his transformation throughout is very important.
Martin is the archetypal embodiment of a talented bohemian artist.
Nearly broke, he is forced to move in with Kate. Throughout the course of the play, he battles with his fellow writers over ethical issues and argues that the written word is a holy thing and anything written with purpose is a part of the writer’s soul.
This is his defense for shielding his writing from the group, and especially Leonard, whom Martin has witnessed humiliate his friends repeatedly.
Martin’s occasional naivety and hypocrisy drive the audience to pity him, but this ultimately causes a great deal of confusion.
It leads to one of the show’s biggest flaws: So many diverse ideas are presented to the audience that it becomes difficult to decipher what the production’s message is.
The show is hardly able to sustain more than a single concept or emotion at a given time and constantly juggles them.
There are plenty of powerful ideas expressed in the show, but because of the difficulty it takes to integrate them, the meaning of the work gets partially lost, and the audience becomes frequently distracted.
This does not happen to a crippling degree, and many of the questions eventually get resolved.
However, the relationships between characters and their pretentious love affairs often get skewed, creating further ambiguity between right and wrong and who is ultimately the victim.
Regardless of the confusion, “Seminar” manages to get its point across.
Though things may not work out between everyone in the end, there is enough substance for the audience to make a clear judgment on what it means to be a writer and an artist.
“Seminar” is a show well worth seeing twice.