If you're planning to see Theresa Rebeck's funny and disturbing "Seminar," now on Broadway at the Golden Theatre, prepare to be dazzled by Alan Rickman. The British actor doesn't often appear on the New York stage, and his mesmerizing performance is reason enough to see this comedy of manners about writing.
Theatergoers unfamiliar with the difficulty of placing fiction in "Tin House" or "The New Yorker," or the competitive nature of admission to Yaddo, the prestigious artist's colony, may not immediately grasp the stratospheric literary ambitions of four young writers (played with gusto and panache by Lily Rabe, Hamish Linklater, Jerry O'Connell, and Hettienne Park) who have paid $5000 for the honor of having their work critiqued by Rickman's Leonard, a once-lionized author and editor with an acid tongue. But those who've taken a fiction-writing workshop may laugh at the play's dark humor while recognizing its hard truths.
Rebeck's opening conceit is that the students hand Leonard their work as he walks through the door for each session and he responds in less than a minute. In a real workshop, in my experience anyway, manuscripts are handed out a week ahead, so the professor and other workshop participants have time to read and assess their qualities before the class discussion.
The idea that anyone could read a page of a story or novel and glean its worth—and indeed predict the author's entire future—seems incredible, until you go home and think about the play and realize that work you've labored over for years may be similarly read and dismissed as soon as it hits the slush pile at most literary agencies. One successful author recently compared landing an agency contract to winning the lottery, because the odds of being signed are so low.
Yet despite the humiliation of being torn apart by Leonard's barbs, each writer in Rebeck's play becomes more committed to his or her craft, and Martin (Linklater) wins the brass ring of Leonard's praise and editorial savvy.
Like those four students, I've been criticized in workshops and lived to tell the tale. I've had my work dismissed by some agents and praised by others, and each time I went back to my writing room and asked the question, "Do I want to keep going?" The answer has always been the same: of course I do. Criticism is an opinion, and over time we learn to incorporate what's useful and discard what isn't, because everyone who reads our work can't like it. As time goes on and one matures as a writer, this realization feels liberating.
Some reviewers called Rebeck's comedy "slick," but I disagree. Her play gives a bird's-eye view of what all writers encounter when they expose their work to those who will judge its merits. But when Leonard reveals his personal Achilles Heel at the finale, I realized one other sterling truth: we're all in the same boat together. There's comfort in Rebeck's denouement, and inspiration, too.