Something about the way Alan Rickman enunciates pussy—and he gets to say it a fair amount—makes the vaginal epithet both more vulgar and more glorious than you'd expect. It snakes out of his mouth plump and humid, contemptuously come-hithering. But then, as disgraced fiction star turned book editor Leonard, Rickman's trade is to transmute words from base metal to glistering gold. That's the promise he dangles before four young scribes in Theresa Rebeck's sexy, savvy, uproarious new comedy, Seminar.
There's always danger when writers lampoon other writers: You never believe their wunderkinds are so wonderful, and they tend to burlesque bad writing beyond credibility. The acid test comes when someone reads a passage aloud that is purportedly genius or dreck. Rebeck wisely curtails recitation of manuscripts. Instead we watch as Rickman's Leonard—being paid $20K to teach a ten-week intensive course at the Upper West Side apartment of Kate (Rabe)—pages through student submissions. A curl of the lip, a twitch of the eyebrow, a flare of the nostrils: These nonverbal signals speak volumes. Out of small gestures and that slurry, violoncello delivery, Rickman crafts one of the most vivid, dimensional stage monsters in years: a burnt-up monument to cynicism and appetite who beds his students when not pulverizing their egos. Rickman gives the comic performance of the season.
But then, he's surrounded by a superb quartet of younger actors and has a doozy of a script at his disposal: smart, bitchy and character-driven. Rebeck's play sizzles with the malicious glee of a writer allowing herself to take revenge on every idiotic editor, literary manager or TV producer who tried to impose their vision on her words. Not that we should doubt Leonard's good taste or overestimate the talents of his breathless would-be protgs (who include Jerry O'Connell, Hettienne Park and drolly bitter Linklater). In fact, Seminar nearly winds up as a bittersweet homage to editors, those servile ministers who labor in the shadows to make the work the best it can be.
In that spirit, let's end this chapter with praise for director Sam Gold, whose understated but perfectly calibrated staging maintains the nuanced integrity of each character while allowing each to be hilariously prideful, greedy and lustful. What have we learned by Seminar's end? The publishing world is a jungle, and it's best to have a big-toothed cat like Alan Rickman by your side.—David Cote
Follow David Cote on Twitter: @davidcote