The truth hurts in “Seminar,” the sharp-tongued comedy by “Smash” creator Theresa Rebeck that’s being acted with magnetic bad manners and casual sex appeal at the Round House Theatre in Bethesda.
Rebeck’s setup is nice and clean: Four hopeful young fiction writers have signed on for a writing seminar with a famously acidic teacher. Will any of their tender egos survive?
The students are green, and Leonard – their outrageously expensive, coolly arrogant tutor – lets them know it.
“I ate cabbage with a Chechnyan psychopath,” Leonard murmurs, recounting one of his characteristically jaw-dropping escapades as a seen-it-all writer who has banged around the globe.
The young writers crave his praise, but it’s a scarce commodity. Leonard’s intuitive cruelty is made extra-brutal by the way actor Marty Lodge off-handedly lobs stinging criticisms at his victims and by the way he slowly paces the room and drops pages to the floor as he reads, as if the students’ writing isn’t even worth properly throwing away.
Pretty quickly, the authors panic. “We are the soul of the culture!” cries Kate, whose spacious rent-controlled Manhattan apartment is where the small group meets. “And people can just [blanking] be nice to us once in a while!”
Fat chance, especially as Rebeck exposes everyone’s insecurities and bad literary habits while heaping juicy slices of romantic intrigue onto the plate. Leonard is said to be based on the influential editor-teacher-writer Gordon Lish, but any professionally exacting, emotionally disinterested model will do. (The corrosive Actors Studio sessions of Lee Strasberg and the flinty Maria Callas of Terrence McNally’s “Master Class” come to mind.)
The delight is that all this is so funny, and not at all dependent on inside references to the U.S. fiction hothouse – journals such as Tin House, writers’ colonies such as Yaddo and MacDowell. Director Jerry Whiddon puts on a zingy, precise show: The acting is knowing and amusingly raw, with the four bickering students sometimes moving as one frightened unit whenever Leonard revs up for another critique.
Lodge is in his 39th show with Round House, despite being seldom seen in recent years. As Leonard he appears to be having a subtle but unmistakable blast. Dressed like a dude rancher by way of Brooklyn (a studied mess of jeans, boots and work shirts), Lodge cruises through the seminar sessions at an easy tempo. He never hurries, never pushes.
Yet he’s superb at keeping the pistol cocked. Leonard’s words don’t wound because he’s mean or reckless (though he often is that), but because he’s usually right. The truth is enough to keep the students frantically unnerved, and Lodge – who has always been blessed with a dry, notably refined sense of comic timing – plays that hand beautifully.
Whiddon keeps the younger quartet in a fine tizzy. Katie deBuys delivers a firecracker turn as Kate, the rebellious author who binges on comfort food after each crippling class. Laura C. Harris buoyantly plays Izzy, the bright young thing who grabs eyeballs with her body as much as with her apparently racy prose style. (One of the conceits you simply have to go with in this comedy is how quickly everyone supposedly reads and assesses everyone else’s complex writing.)
Tom Story is droll as Douglas, the most polished of the emerging writers, and Alexander Strain is persuasive with the cranky boyishness and romantic cluelessness of Martin, who is haplessly sandwiched between Kate and Izzy. Except for Martin, who buries himself in droopy jeans and frumpy hoodies, these writers want to be noticed, and the production sleekly reflects their upscale ambition. Ivania Stack’s costumes for Izzy, Douglas and Kate (but especially Izzy) glow with fashion. James Kronzer’s enviable tall apartment set showcases exposed brick walls and hardwood floors.
There is a glossy prize to be snatched, in other words – though which stylish arrangement of words will punch someone’s ticket is the mystery. Or is it? Why write? Rebeck had been through the wars even before the roller coaster of “Smash,” and for all its zippy punch lines and romantic low blows, a great deal of “Seminar” rings true.
It’s a savvy, satisfying play, and Rebeck makes it great fun to watch these writers – all of them – take their lumps.
“Seminar,” by Theresa Rebeck. Directed by Jerry Whiddon. Lights, Daniel MacLean Wagner; composer/sound design, Eric Shimelonis. About 95 minutes. Tickets $10-$45. Through March 2 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda. 240-644-1100 or roundhousetheatre.org .