By Elsa Johnson & Victor Lucas
“Abandon learning and avoid sorrow,” counseled Lao Tsu, good though backhanded advice if we’ve ever heard it. And that goes double for the 4 poor suckers — uh, aspiring novelists — who have paid $5000 apiece for a ten-session writing seminar with Leonard, the great guru of writing, who holds center stage in Seminar, the biting comedy now playing at Beck Center.
Will Leonard — can Leonard — teach writing? Or is he just an abusive has-been who has found a way to make sadism pay? “Listen to me! Don’t defend yourself!” he says to Kate after dismissing her novel without finishing the first page, the first sentence.
Poor Kate. Everyone told her to keep working on her novel. For 4 years. Everyone but Leonard. Now, has she learned something, or is she just sorry she spent $5K?
“This is a teacher who’s interested in blasting all that shit off, all that artifice,” explained Scott Plate, who plays Leonard at the Beck Center production that opened last Friday. “There are more layers, but that’s what I’m working with now.”
And there are layers upon layers of pure shit badly in need of blasting in the before picture that is Scene One as the 4 await Leonard’s arrival. Douglas the geeky name-dropper prattles on about “interiority and exteriority” and the 2 women, Izzy and Kate, are thrilled and supportive. Martin, the guy for whom nothing is pure enough, takes issue, but everyone is still drinking Perrier and pro forma envy for Kate’s highly affordable, rent-controlled apartment reminds us that we’re in Manhattan.
Leonard turns up in Scene Two, heads straight for the vodka, savages Kate’s novel, and draws on his experience as a war correspondent to make authoritative pronouncements on what’s relevant. “I ate cabbage with a Chechen psychopath; it was fucked-up but it was relevant.”
In Scene Three Kate takes issue with Leonard but he stands his ground. Izzy, the-most-desirable-woman-in-the-room, presents her writing – and in not-so-subtle body language, herself – and Leonard is favorably impressed. “Very good, Izzy,” he says as he snuggles up to her on the couch. Ah, Manhattan.
Seminar premiered on Broadway in 2011 to mostly good reviews and ran for 6 months at one of the smallest of the Broadway theaters with Alan Rickman and later Jeff Goldblum as Leonard. No block-buster but funny, smart, sad, and a true to life snapshot of the competitive, cut-throat atmosphere of the writer’s workshop.
The script rang true for us, veterans of Ohio word wars going back half a century, although we hasten to acknowledge our recent experiences with kinder, gentler, and more effective workshops for writers.
We found The Beck’s performance of Seminar very entertaining. Equity actors Lara Knox and Scott Plate as Kate and Leonard ably carry the play as their characters must. Are the youthful Aily Roper, Brian Gale, and Andrew Gombas as Izzy, Douglas, and Martin pitch-perfect performers or merely well cast and well directed? Either way, nary a false note or a dropped beat in 96 minutes that flew by without an intermission. See it.
‘Seminar by Theresa Rebeck runs through June 29 at the Studio Theater at the Beck Center for the Arts, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, 44107. Performances are at 8pm Fridays and Saturdays and 3pm on Sundays. Tickets including service fees are $32 for adults, $29 for seniors, and $15 for students. Purchase tickets online at http://www.beckcenter.org or phone 216-521-2540 X 10.
[Photo: Pat Miller]
From Cool Cleveland contributors Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas. Elsa and Vic are both longtime Clevelanders. Elsa is a landscape designer. She studied ballet as an avocation for 2 decades. Vic has been a dancer and dance teacher for most of his working life, performing in a number of dance companies in NYC and Cleveland. They write about dance as a way to learn more and keep in touch with the dance community. E-mail them at vicnelsaATearthlink.net.