It’s Tough to Write…About Writing

By Geary Danihy

Anyone who has ever agonized over writing a school essay knows that writing doesn’t come easy, but in Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar, which recently opened at TheatreWorks New Milford under the direction of Alicia Dempster, those who hope to one day pen the Great American Novel face emotional and psychological hurdles and pitfalls that would make the Special Forces’ obstacle training course look like child’s play. This somewhat verbose comedy about wanna-be writers will be an eye-opener for those who believe writing is a safe, sedentary, contemplative way to earn a living and hopefully achieve fame and fortune. It’s a jungle out there, and Rebeck has gathered several of its creatures together to snarl, growl, claw and mate with each other for 90 or so minutes. The result is slightly comedic, somewhat formulaic and, well, over-written.

Set in a posh Upper West Side Manhattan apartment designed by Scott Wyshynski, the play opens with four erstwhile writers gathered together for a seminar to be run by a literary almost-luminary. There is Douglas (Jim Dietter), a bit effete and very taken with his polysyllabic vocabulary. The New Yorker is interested in one of his stories and his father was a semi-famous playwright, so he is possibly a comer. However, Martin (Chris Luongo) is less than impressed with Doug’s name-dropping and argues for the purity of the writing pursuit (after all, it’s inspired by our higher angels, isn’t it?).

Purity doesn’t impress Izzy (Reesa Roccapriore), who is not averse to sleeping her way to publication and a possible spot on the New York Times’ bestseller list, while Kate (Anya Caravella), whose family leases the rent-controlled apartment, has been working on the same story for six years because since her stint at Bennington she has been told it shows promise.

Anyone who has spent any time with neophyte writers, many of whom can be found in the numerous collegiate MFA courses, will recognize these characters for, indeed, they are stereotypes: the wordy nerd enraptured by theory, the suffering artiste who does not think the world is ready for his prose, the semi-slut femme fatale, and the earnest, good little rich girl.

Enter Leonard (Kevin Sosbe), a once famous author now turned editor who will run the 10-week seminar. If the four tyro writers are Bambis in the woods, Leonard is a scarred rhinoceros complete with a horn that can gouge and eviscerate. A weary-world traveler who has seen suffering humanity at its worst, he is the play’s bargain-basement Hemingway, wearing his machismo on his sleeve and disdainful of those who have gathered to hear his words of wisdom.

Oddly enough, in a play about five writers, we never actually get to hear what any of them have written, save for the first five words of Kate’s story. Thus, quite a few minutes are spent throughout the play watching Leonard or one of the other characters reading and dropping manuscript pages on the floor. Not exactly compelling drama. It’s also a bit odd that in a play about a writing seminar so little is actually said about the writing process. There’s a lot of pontificating, pseudo-philosophizing and put-downs, but the five characters seem more interested in investigating and eviscerating egos and pointing out foibles and failures than in how words actually get formed into stories.

Leonard turns his scorn and less than acerbic wit on each writer in set-pieces that, at first, seem interesting but really go nowhere, so much so that a certain feeling of deja vu sets in: Leonard speaks about his latest exploits in far off lands, reads several pages, then offers comments that are meant to cut to the writer’s quick. Actually, they just seem nasty.

As the evening nears its close, we are treated to an extended monologue by Leonard while the rest of the characters attempt to look as if they are interested. His woeful tale of a writer’s life seems to go on forever and though it is meant to be heartfelt, since we really don’t care about this character (we’ve been given no reason to), it engenders nothing more than a “So what?”

This is followed by an extended final scene set in Leonard’s book-lined apartment that is meant to resolve, well, whatever needs to be resolved. Is it unsatisfactory? Let me count the ways. Easy -- it’s the sum of the number of times I thought: “No, I don’t buy that.”

As written, this is a tough play to stage, if only because in the multiple scenes of the actual seminar most of the actors really have nothing to do but react. Dempster has blocked the scenes using the full stage, but often we have characters locked in place or, worse still, making crosses that have no real motivation other than it’s time to move from here to there.

One of the few valid points brought up about fiction writing during the evening is that characters must have interior lives, so it is ironic that the characters Rebeck has created seem to merely exist on the surface. Thus, it’s difficult to generate any concern for what might happen to them, mainly because the stakes, such as they are, seem to be trivial, and the revelation that the publishing world is just a business like any other business is less than shattering. Yes, you can make it to the top through contacts or by sleeping with ‘the boss’ or by knifing the competition in the back. It’s just another jungle.

Seminar runs through March 12. For tickets or more information call 860-350-6863 or going online to theatreworks.us.

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