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Seminar
by Theresa Rebeck
Directed by Elizabeth Helman
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
September 18, 2015

Nathan Bush, John Pierson, Taylor Pietz, Jason Contini, Alicia Smith Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Nathan Bush, John Pierson, Taylor Pietz, Jason Contini, Alicia Smith
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

I guess Seminar is a better title than “a bunch of writers yelling at each other”.  Theresa Rebeck’s play, which opens St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s newest season, doesn’t seem to have much of a point beyond that premise. Still, STLAS and director Elizabeth Helman have assembled a strong cast of excellent local actors who manage to make the characters interesting despite how they are written.

The plot of Seminar is relatively simple. A group of aspiring writers gather in the home of a fellow student to participate in a private class led by Leonard (John Pierson), a once-celebrated novelist-turned editor who has a reputation as a difficult critic.  He spends most of the class berating his students over one issue or another, and the students take turns sniping at each other and Leonard. The students include the combative Martin (Jason Contini), who doesn’t want anyone to read what he writes. There’s also the pretentious, privileged Douglas (Nathan Bush), whose uncle is a famous writer; Kate (Taylor Pietz) who comes from a rich family and whose rent-controlled apartment is the setting for most of the play; and Izzy (Alicia Smith), an ambitious young writer who seems to be there primarily to flirt with the men and make them jealous. While there are some interesting ideas here, and moments of comedy, it’s all essentially shallow, with an ultimate message that seems to be “the writing world sucks but if you’re talented, you might succeed for a while”, with a secondary message of “if you’re a genius, you can be a jerk and be rewarded for it.”

The challenge with a play like this, full of characters that are difficult to like as written, is to find a cast that will make the story interesting anyway. Thankfully, STLAS has done that.  I still don’t actually like any of these characters very much, but the very talented performers manage to make them interesting. Bush’s entitled but charmingly goofy Douglas is perhaps the most likable, with Bush giving a standout performance. Pierson and Contini, as the teacher and his most belligerent student, do their best with their roles, creating an interesting sense of competition between the characters. In the underwritten female roles, Pietz and Smith do about as well as can be to present well-rounded characterizations, and there is some great tension especially in some moments between Pietz and Contini. There’s a genuine sense of camaraderie at times when the students are there without Leonard, as well, and I credit that to the cast.

Technically, the production is excellent, as is to be expected at STLAS. Patrick Huber’s set is sufficiently well-appointed, suggesting an upscale New York apartment, and also able to be convincingly transformed later into a smaller, less well-maintained residence. There’s also good work from Huber on lighting and sound design, as well as Carla Landis Evans on costumes and props. The technical aspects, as well as director Helman’s compelling staging, help make this show interesting and about as believable as possible.

Seminar is ostensibly Rebeck’s stinging critique of the competitive world of creative writing, but I can’t imagine anyone seeing this and actually wanting to become a writer. It’s also surprising that play with such a dismissive attitude toward its female characters could have been written by a woman. The commendable cast, along with the usual good production values at STLAS, combine to make this about as good a production of this problematic play as I can imagine.

Nathan Bush, John Pierson, Taylor Pietz, Jason Contini, Alicia Smith Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Nathan Bush, John Pierson, Taylor Pietz, Jason Contini, Alicia Smith
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s Seminar runs at the Gaslight Theatre until October 4, 2015

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