“Writers are about as civilized as feral cats,” says Leonard (Andrew Benator), a renowned fiction writer who’s leading an exclusive workshop for four young hopefuls in the new play “Seminar” by Theresa Rebeck, at Actor’s Express through June 16. It sounds like a melodramatic statement, the sort of hyperbole that would get crossed out by the red pen of a good editor. But after seeing how the characters behave, you may end up believing that feral cats actually have far more decency and restraint than writers.
Rebeck’s play premiered on Broadway in 2011. It has a terrific set-up and it offers a star turn, if an unlikable one, for the actor playing the tough, abusive famous writer. Benator’s smartly limned Leonard exists in a sort of bitter haze punctuated by bad moods. He can barely remember the participants’ names, their writing or the events from the previous week’s seminar, but if something tries his patience (bad writing usually does the trick), his vision suddenly become crystalline sharp and he zeroes in to strike. Benator has a wonderful way of discarding pages after he’s read them and letting them fall to the floor as if they’re only so much dead weight. But his casual, nonchalant way of releasing them suggests that they were dead weight even before he bothered to look.
The four young actors who play the seminar students are all smartly cast. (Cara Mantella, who plays the sensitive Kate, is a standout in a strong lineup.) They handle the play’s twists and turns well, in spite of how the action occasionally veers into flights of exaggeration. Things are often pounded in rather than depicted with a light touch; a character might be a jerk, another might be a pushover, a braggart, a neophyte or a user, but they’re seldom drawn in a complicated way at first glance.
Rebeck may not be a playwright with the lightest of touches, but she doesn’t aim to be. She shows us a nail-biting, harrowing, “cat-eat-cat” world of ambition and competition. Some of the play’s young writers might want out of their pressure-cooker situation, but they’re more or less on the hook. They’ve all paid $5,000 for the privilege of being sent through the wringer of Leonard’s class, which is famous for weeding out the weak and plucking out the next literary star. They’re stuck. Rebeck keeps things tense, vivid, witty and exciting, with some unexpected turns. There’s shop talk, but it never feels too “inside baseball,” which would seemingly be a danger in a play about writing. I think everyone will find this one entertaining.
Rebeck gives us a whip-smart 90 minutes of intense infighting among some pretty feral cats. In the next few weeks, a lot of Atlantans — especially the writers in town — will be asking one another, “Have you seen ‘Seminar’ yet?”