"Writers aren't people," a character says in Seminar. Theresa Rebeck's latest play — co-produced here by the Unicorn and UMKC Theatre — pivots on that difficult premise: how to dramatize the intrinsically private, silent act of writing.
In a New York apartment, four aspiring writers meet for a workshop. They have shelled out $5,000 apiece for the privilege of having their efforts eviscerated by Leonard, a once-successful novelist turned tyrannical editor and teacher. Played with hypnotic control by Robert Gibby Brand, he saunters around the stage in a leather jacket, holding a Starbucks cup and delivering each pronouncement on his pupils' work as though wielding a straight razor. He can be spiteful and sleazy, but he's also magnetic, and his sentences surge electrically through the stale apartment air.
To survive their time under Leonard's knife, each writer clings to his or her own brand of neurosis. Kate (Courtney Salvage) has worked on the same story for six years, subsisting on a starvation diet of scant praise. (Frank Conroy once told her the piece was "much better than most.") Chioma Anyanwu sizzles as Izzy, a self-possessed seductress ready to disrobe if it gives her an edge. Braggart Douglas (Noah Whitmore) exploits family connections to publish his work while name-dropping elite writing colonies and literary journals. "His language is subhuman," gripes Martin (Logan Black), Leonard's most reluctant pupil, who refuses to let anyone see his brilliant novel.
If we're meant to relate to a character, it might be Kate, whom Salvage lends smart comedic timing through rants about misogyny and pretension. Still, the script stretches Kate to the point of parody. After a brutal workshop, she emerges from her kitchen with ice cream, Diet Coke, and an open bag of Lay's. Later, she laps raw cookie dough from an eggbeater, moaning about her commitment to weight gain. Rebeck places her somewhere between 30 Rock's Liz Lemon and the punch line of a Cathy cartoon.
Rebeck has shown signs of a better-tuned sensibility. In a tongue-in-cheek 2008 essay on Broadway's glass ceiling, for instance, she writes: "What art does is celebrate the lives and struggles of men." Yet Seminar does just that — its women are either sleeping their way to the top or eating their feelings. When Kate pads bare-assed into Leonard's living room to collect her panties, we're surprised. And when she reveals that she has parlayed her tryst into a ghostwriting gig, we see that the only writers afforded integrity in this play are its men.
But the lives and struggles of Seminar's men are worth examining, if not celebrating. Brand delivers his final monologue as an aching elegy to the writing life. As his pressure-cooker speech goes on, Brand never loses his cultivated cool. Each beat drips with the self-loathing and loss that cling to artists like shadows.
Writers may not be people, but they make for fascinating character studies. The Unicorn and UMKC Theatre's staging lays bare the angst and insecurity of the profession. The result is a wrenching, adrenaline-soaked portrait of a deeply flawed segment of the creative class.