Floating windows at the top of the stage! That Is not, necessarily, the first thing you marvel at in the Round House Theatre’s current and stimulating new play Seminar for, indeed, all the elements of a solid and professional production are vividly on display here in Theresa Rebeck’s witty and absorbing play. Under the astute direction of Jerry Whiddon, the play moves briskly along at a ninety-minute stretch full of human pathos and moral relativity underneath the humor.
We are immediately thrust into the tale of an egotistical writing instructor, Leonard (Marty Lodge) and his coterie of four ambitious writing students, Kate (Katie Debuys), Martin (Alexander Strain), Izzy (Laura C. Harris) and Douglas (Tom Story),–who alternately cringe or exult in their instructor’s lethal criticisms as they competitively court his favor. Playwright Rebeck appears to be having a field day (Dramaturg duties by Lloyd Rose) portraying individuals seemingly bent on collaborating to achieve excellence while, simultaneously, getting trapped in the allure of power struggles, having the right connections and coping with the commercial aspect of their craft. Intellectual pretensions, sexual infidelities, and inter-personal sabotage and deceit are the required traits needed to survive the battle to gain prominence in the world of the writer. Human struggles ensue and this is the meat and potatoes of this diverting play.
Like the feral cats alluded to in the play, this group of competitive writers circle around each other snarling with verbal firepower and using language as a weapon. Almost any stratagem will be attempted to gain prominence in their field. Playwright Rebeck appears to be pondering what are the demarcations between the individual and their art.
As the somewhat eccentric and unkempt writer Martin, Alexander Strain is the standout of the cast and he is the swell-effacing anchor of the play. Strain develops his character with an interesting mixture of anger, defiance and anxiety. Just when one believes his character has lost all hope, surprises will appear. Strain in entirely “in the moment” in each of his scenes.
Following close behind is the domineering writing instructor, Leonard, played so fervently by Marty Lodge. Lodge combines just the right touches of insolence, arrogance, pride, and loutishness whether he is hectoring his students or regaling the bickering crew with his tales of his vast, real-life experience. Lodge appears to be shaking his fist in fury at the cruel jests of the world.
As Kate, the “put-upon” hostess of the writing group, Kate deBuys brings just the right touch of earnestness and willingness to “play the game” to get ahead even if it means injecting a little bit of deceit into the proceedings. deBuys has a beautiful speaking voice.
Laura C. Harris as the sensual and free-spirited Izzy captures the attention with her physical presence and lithe grace. Her character is always one step ahead of the game and ready to throw herself into the fray.
Tom Story is appropriately pretentious in the role of Douglas.
Just as our group of bickering writers circle each other with confrontation and zeal, James Kronzer’s elegant yet efficient set design of an Upper West Side apartment encircles almost the entire stage –(replete with the seemingly floating windows alluded to previously!). Kronzer’s set is rich in detail complete with archway, brown furniture, earth tones and modern visuals as accents. Just as Kronzer amazed us with his stunning revolving set for Glengarry Glen Ross, he amazes us here in the concluding scenes -but I cannot give the details away or I would have to issue a “spoiler alert.”
Ivania Stack’s costumes are edgy and urban in feel. Daniel Maclean Wagner’s lighting is perfect in this fast-paced play. Eric Shimelonis handles Sound Design chores with almost fugue-like tones in transitional scenes and at the beginning of scenes.
Again, I must commend Director Jerry Whiddon for propelling this play into the substantial production that it is. I would also be remiss if I did not commend Producing Artistic Director Ryan Rilette for prodding the Round House Theatre into the future with the edgy and progressive fare it now offers.
This Seminar is a class you will want to take!
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Seminar plays through March 2, 2014 at Round House Theatre – 4545 East-West Highway, in Bethesda, MD. For tickets, call the box office (240) 644-1100, or purchase them online.