Once again, Alan Rickman is teaching a class of wide-eyed students about the dark arts while showing a special, sneering interest in one bespectacled pupil, a young man dangerously unaware of his formidable powers. No, not Harry Potter. Mr. Radcliffe is still a block away, kicking up his heels at the Hirschfeld.
Furthermore, these dark arts have nothing to do with the supernatural, though many practitioners will swear somebody has cursed them, a list of possible suspects that might include agents, editors, publishers, mothers, fathers, siblings, friends, those better off, those worse off, or even their own self-defeating psyches.
After a decade-long absence, Rickman returns to Broadway in Theresa Rebeck’s scathingly funny "Seminar", adding another charming malefactor to his acting résumé.
Like a few of Rickman’s previous incarnations, his character Leonard, a booze-addled, skirt-chasing writer turned writing teacher, is not all bad; at the very least, there is an admirable method to his malefaction.
With Rickman’s signature languid detachment, Leonard unleashes a verbal fusillade at four fledgling New York writers, one who already has the right industry connections, one whose picture would look great on the back cover of a book jacket, and two misguided souls who approach writing as a pure and noble art form.
Each of them has paid Leonard five thousand dollars for the privilege of being belittled and berated by a one-time literary heavyweight whose reign at the top was ended by an embarrassing scandal. Now, in addition to imparting his acrid, world-weary wisdom in private, small-scale seminars, Leonard also earns a living as a well-regarded editor, while occasionally reinforcing his nihilism by visiting war-torn countries for magazine articles.
Relatively speaking, especially given the professional mortal sin he supposedly committed, Leonard is a lucky man, having attained the type of career for which a struggling writer might give up a kidney or two. Despite his enviable successes, however, Leonard feels that he is wasting his talent, an irremediable fate that secretly devastates him.
Meanwhile, self-respect is not a gut-churning preoccupation for unabashed sexpot Izzy (Hettienne Park), the most attractive of Leonard’s new paid-in-full charges, or for another student Douglas (Jerry O’Connell), an obnoxious name-dropper with a vocabulary too big for his own good.
If Izzy makes it as a writer, it will be because of a willingness to sleep her way to notoriety, a strategy that the lascivious Leonard heartily endorses both for personal gratification and because he knows from experience that it probably will work.
And, although Douglas has had some success happily accepting all the advantages nepotism can provide, Leonard bluntly encourages him to stop trying to earn respect in the pages of serious literary magazines. In Leonard’s estimation, the "hollow" Douglas is missing his real calling as a Hollywood hack, pumping out scripts at a premium for lowbrow luminaries like Brett Ratner and whoever directs Adam Sandler’s movies.
Safe to say, though, that when it comes to commercialism, Rebeck is not on an artistic high horse, having done her share of for-profit-only writing, including a story credit on "Catwoman," the ignominious Halle Berry snooze fest.
Unfortunately, writers cannot survive on integrity alone, or by teaching freshmen English courses, or from paltry freelancing fees, or, when good fortune is really on their side, the prestige of being a Pulitzer Prize finalist for Drama, as Rebeck was in 2003.
But some writers do try to practice their craft unsullied by baser concerns, and Rebeck’s play offers them pragmatic advice: to remember, that like any other profession, advancing one’s writing career requires salesmanship, compromise, and appreciating the scope of your abilities. On these three counts, Izzy and Douglas are already ahead of the game, and Leonard has a grudging respect for them, or whatever he feels for people he does not completely loathe.
At the opposite end of the reality spectrum, Kate (Lily Rabe), a Bennington graduate with a nine-room Upper West Side apartment, has been fixated on her semi-autobiographical magnum opus for six years; upon reaching the first semicolon, Leonard hands it back to her, judging the work a failure.
After this callous dismissal of her efforts, Kate, the Sontag wannabe, retaliates by hurling her idealism at Leonard; in response, he either shrugs or smacks her down with brutally truthful remarks. Rickman and Rabe play off each other masterfully; they even almost manage to pull off a development in their characters’ relationship that Rebeck unconvincingly springs on the audience. It is Rebeck’s only glaring misstep.
As for the visually challenged Martin (Hamish Linklater), Rebeck’s most heartfelt sympathies lie with him. A poor outer borough resident on the verge of homelessness after paying for Leonard’s tutelage, Martin, unlike his fellow classmates, possesses both rare talent and rigid creative standards; when combined with the fact that he is a "nobody," as Leonard so delicately puts it, a miserably unproductive life seems certain. That the deeply damaged Leonard, who refers to himself as Mephistopheles, might be Martin’s best chance for salvation attests to why everyone should major in mathematics.
"Seminar" has an open run at the John Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street. For more information, visit the "Seminar" website.