Theaters producing plays about theater and writers writing about writing abound, but it is rare that professional navel-gazing about the stage or the page succeeds with the accessible humor and satisfying drama of Actors Guild of Lexington's latest production, Seminar by Theresa Rebeck.
The play focuses on the effect that a celebrated novelist-turned-teacher-for-hire Leonard (Marc Roland) has on four young New York City writers, who have ponied up $5,000 each for a 10-week seminar with Leonard, who turns out to be a nightmare.
Acerbic, casually dour and dismissive, drunk on self-aggrandizement and whatever booze is handy, Leonard's status as a world-class jerk and a cad who lacks basic manners makes it all the harder to swallow the cruel truth: He is right most of the time.
Rebeck does not give Leonard much nuance in the first part of the play, but Roland deserves praise for reading between the one-liners, which he delivers with caustic precision. Beneath his prickly veneer, Leonard is a writer who has been celebrated, then betrayed and finally tolerated, by his profession. He has a kind of shell-shocked quality, like a calloused war veteran who has gone beyond naive notions of patriotism to wade in the blood and guts of it all, and he will not spare his students the gore.
The play's writers are not fledgling undergrads. They are talented writers on the verge of breaking into a professional world that might eat them alive. Leonard does them a favor by taking the first chomp.
That does not mean that my English major heart does not empathize with the plight of the four students, each of whom represents a type of writer — the privileged feminist with little life experience (Hayley Williams), the well-connected name dropper with talent but nothing to say (Thomas Gibbs), the seductive social climber (Sydney Taylor Turner) and the talented nobody (Eric Seale).
Rebeck's script strikes a careful, entertaining balance between parody and praise of the writing life, and the ensemble portraying the students particularly nails the mix of shyness, enthusiasm, jealousy, sexual competition, literary jargon and repressed judgement rolled into each passive-aggressive "I liked it" evaluation of one another's work.
Chrisena Ricci makes a promising directorial debut, facing the unique challenges of Rebeck's script head-on. One of those challenges is the counterpoint between the quick-tempo appeal for instant laughs and the longer, deeper examination of the surprising fallout of Leonard's seminar.
Rebeck created the TV show Smash, and you can feel the influence of television writing; the script is peppered with sitcomlike moments ripe for canned laughter.
Most of the time, this schtick works and is understandably necessary, because most of the drama that writers endure takes place in their heads. Other times, as when rich girl Kate (Williams) sucks down a can of whipped cream because Leonard doesn't like her story, it undermines the credibility of the characters with overplayed, forced frivolity.
The relationship dynamics among the four students are palpable, but Ricci could get more depth and nuance out of their attractions and entanglements, humanizing them beyond their literary typecast. Yes, we know that Martin (Seale) and Kate secretly love each other, but it seemslike an afterthought when it could be brewing steamily the entire time.
Nonetheless, Seminar is a thought-provoking, entertaining examination of why writers write and whether it is worth it.
IF YOU GO
What: Actors Guild of Lexington's production of Theresa Rebeck's play.
When: 8 p.m. March 1, 2, 8, 9; 2 p.m. March 3, 10.
Where: Actors Guild of Lexington South Elkhorn Theatre, 4383 Old Harrodsburg Rd.
Tickets: $20 adults, $15 students and senior adults; call 1-866-811-4111 from 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sat., Sun. Go to Actors-guild.org.
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer.