Haven Theatre Company at Theater Wit. By Theresa Rebeck. Directed by Marti Lyons. With Tom Hickey, Mary Williamson, Keith Neagle, Atra Asdou, Carl Lindberg. 1hr 40mins; no intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
There's a very particular kind of suspension of disbelief required by Theresa Rebeck's 2011 comedy. You have to accept, either as a facet of character or as a simple practicality of the stage, that Tom Hickey's Leonard, an abrasive once-great novelist now teaching high-priced seminars for aspiring writers, can make an accurate judgment of a short story's worth with a quick glance through a few sentences.
Leonard's judgments, delivered over several weeks of meetings with four students in a Manhattan apartment, are as harsh as they are swift. He dismisses the story that Kate (Mary Williamson), the apartment's tenant, has been working on for six years midway through its first sentence; the pretentious but well-connected Douglas (Carl Lindberg), Leonard proclaims, should forget his literary ambitions, because his air of whorishness is just right for Hollywood.
Izzy (Atra Asdou), who proclaims her intent to pose provocatively on her own book cover, predictably gets praise for her pages' sexuality, even as Leonard backhandedly notes their total lack of substance or ideas. And Martin (Keith Neagle), a friend of Kate's since high school, might just be the most prolific of all of them, if only he'd let anyone see his work.
The shifting balance of power among the fivesome offers plenty of opportunities for witty retorts and reversals. Rebeck, who's been known to be rather prickly about criticism, feints down the art-is-precious path: "People think it's so fun to be mean to artists," Kate pouts after she's the first to have her work eviscerated. Later, someone insinuates the washed-up novelist's real goal is "to destroy young writers." Yet Rebeck doesn't allow such facile statements to stand; Leonard, for all his assholish behavior, really does have something to teach each of his students, even as he reveals his own discomfort with what he sees as the servile nature of teaching and editing.
It's frankly surprising that Haven Theatre, a non-Equity company that's still in its first producing season, managed to snag the Chicago premiere of a Broadway play by a writer as high-profile as Rebeck. But director Marti Lyons and her cast of seasoned off-Loop actors serve up an ideal production. Lindberg deftly and hilariously establishes Douglas's background in the opening scene, affectedly describing the "interiority" and "exteriority" of the environment at the writers' retreat Yaddo.
Yet Hickey's gruff, rumpled Leonard, who's become a globe-trotting magazine correspondent, is just as self-inflating in his descriptions of trips to Rwanda and Somalia, which he uses as currency in much the same way Douglas does his Yaddo attendance. And Lyons's production is adroit in its quick shifts of our allegiance—at first it seems Williamson's delightfully acerbic Kate and her self-consciousness of privilege will be our main focus, but then maybe it's Neagle's nervous, unconnected Martin and his pining for Asdou's Izzy. It's actually all that and more, as these five scribes keep going through rewrites.