Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Stoneham scores with Seminar

Jordan Ahnquist is schooled by Sophori Ngin in Seminar. Photos: David Costa.

My readers know I'm no fan of Theresa Rebeck; at her best she's a clever craftsman, but at her worst she's little more than a hack.  No, wait - at her worst she's a hack who exploits feminism for cheap sympathy (and a career boost). That is when she's not - incredibly - comparing herself to Kafka!

But unlike the divine Herr K, our feminist Saint Theresa is a force of nature when it comes to clambering up the pop cultural pyramid (and thus she has transcended, at least at the box office, the limits of her talent).  So she's working her own beat in Seminar (at the Stoneham Theatre through September 29), a bright, bouncy satire of literary strivers, and the sleazy gurus who take their money (and sexual favors) in exchange for "access." In the end I couldn't argue that Seminar goes anywhere deep or new (Rebeck never does); and the edge of her sardonic pen goes predictably limp by her final scene. But in its hairpin turns till then, her script is taut as the hardbodies she occasionally puts on display (above). So in its small way, Seminar is something of a smash; it's probably Rebeck's best play, and you certainly can't deny it's fun.

It helps that at Stoneham, director Weylin Symes has guided a talented young cast through every move on Rebeck's lit-slut chessboard with consummate skill. It's certainly the tightest show I've seen at this theatre in some time - and probably the strongest opening of the season so far (and with its "epic" swearing and flashes of skin, it probably counts as shocking for this sweetly sleepy suburb).

Rebeck's set-up is that her obvious factotum, "Kate," is hosting an ongoing writing seminar with a famous, but failed, literary lion, "Leonard" (Christopher Tarjian) who's on the prowl for talent between the sheets as well as on the page. His students know only one of them is likely to win his nod of approval - which is the only thing they really want - and to complicate things for the women, like many a mangy professorial feline, Leonard is utterly sexist in his attitudes and advice ("Grow some balls!" he growls to even his female acolytes). So in Leonard's testosterone-addled mind, it's still 1975  - although, yes, I'm sure there are literary lizards crawling around the faculty lounge who hiss much the same tired lines today. The trouble is that Leonard's dated lingo somehow dates Rebeck, too; her play seems to be sporting a virtual "Hillary '08!" button - and at any rate, the battle lines she draws seem hopelessly scrambled (Kate and Leonard end up bickering over the supposed machismo of Jack Kerouac, a semi-closeted bisexual!).

Thank God Rebeck quickly gets off the soapbox, and cranks up the soap opera - which features a familiar cast of types: besides Kate (the reliable Liz Hayes, as "the girl next door - in her own apartment on Riverside Drive"), there's "Izzy" (Sophori Ngin), the hottie who knows how to get what she wants; "Douglas" (Jesse Hinson) the second-rate scion of literary royalty; and "Martin" (Jordan Ahnquist), the sensitive class clown who (surprise, surprise) is concealing the only real talent in the room.

Hayes, Tarjian, Ahnquist and Hinson ponder those critical first few syllables . . .

Okay, as they say in Hollywood - let the games begin! And the ensuing blood sports do play out entertainingly; devastating snap judgments (often based on a single sentence!) rain down on Rebeck's scheming seminarians like thunder from on high - although in the end, the author's final paean to literary truth struck me as more rote than rousing. And I have to add her script would have been far more interesting if her heroine had eventually realized her own feminism could serve as just another kind of cynical career springboard. But that might have brought the play a little too close to home for Rebeck, and at any rate, such an insight would have required the kind of self-awareness that few people (and perhaps fewer playwrights) ever achieve. As it is, Kate proves something of a hypocrite at the last minute, in a twist that pretty much makes nonsense of everything that has come before for her character (and that even the capable Hayes can't make believable). Which may mean Rebeck has taken at least a sideways glance in the mirror.

And to be honest, there are a few slight gaps in the Stoneham casting. As Leonard, Chris Tarjan lacks the menacing sexual charisma that Alan Rickman (a.k.a. "Professor Snape") brought to the role on Broadway, but in a sense that only sharpens the satire, as it makes everyone's willingness to bed him look all the more mercenary. And Jesse Hinson doesn't quite read as a spoiled prep school overlord - but he does give his evisceration by Leonard a touch of real pathos. I'd have liked to see a little more of that deep insecurity in Jordan Ahnquist's Martin, but Ahnquist is always appealing, and has a nice rapport with Hayes, who delivers her usual apt and detailed work, at least until that final, inexplicable twist.  Meanwhile sexy newcomer Sophori Ngin holds her own (and then some) with an appealingly friendly, no-nonsense attitude toward what everybody knows you have to do to get ahead.

The bottom line, however, is that director Symes has kept everyone utterly on top of Rebeck's all-important beats (she's a television writer, after all), and so Seminar snaps, crackles and pops just as it should.  The lady may have no real creative profile, but damn can she polish. And you couldn't claim the results at Stoneham are theatrically nutritious; but they are, quite often, snarkily delicious.

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