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Review: 'Seminar' is a sharp look at writing classes

Masochism is the chief prerequisite for a private writing seminar with Leonard, the fearsome teacher, writer and editor conducting a mini reign of terror in Theresa Rebeck's Broadway comedy "Seminar," now at the Ahmanson Theatre.

Played by Jeff Goldblum as a snarling narcissist in designer sportswear better suited to someone half his age, this pedagogical terrorist has agreed to lead a writing workshop with four fiercely competitive students, each of whom has paid $5,000 for the privilege of having their fiction eviscerated with a shrug and a yawn.

The play, given a sharp production by the hot young gun director Sam Gold, has sportive fun with the passive-aggressive and just plain aggressive dynamics of writing classes, in which souls are bared and egos are barbed.

VIDEO: Jeff Goldbum chats about 'Seminar'

Rebeck, a master of damning social detail, entertainingly tracks the developing rivalries and ensuing psychological war games. If she's not as adept at advancing her story line, it's probably because she can't resist pointing out how the young, entitled and still frustratingly unsung will do just about anything, even subjecting themselves to the brutal disdain of a jaded old pro, to realize their publishing dreams.

But can't they see this once hot novelist, now a globe-trotting magazine writer, is doing them a favor by exposing them to the mercilessness of the literary life? Apparently not. Coddled in college, these budding Jane Austens and Jack Kerouacs expect more of the same until their New Yorker breakthrough arrives on schedule, with a movie deal not long behind to ensure they'll never, as God is their witness, be priced out of Manhattan again.

At least Kate (the excellent Aya Cash) doesn't have to worry about rent. Living in her family's rambling Upper West Side apartment (elegantly conjured by scenic and costume designer David Zinn), she hosts the weekly seminar while doing her best to fend off the barrage of real estate inquiries that comes with having a New York address with Texas-size square footage.

When it is revealed that this rent-controlled manse costs only $800 a month, the relentlessly name-dropping Douglas (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe), who will be labeled a "whore" by Leonard and encouraged to go to Hollywood, is beside himself with glee. What Martin (Greg Keller), a more self-effacing writer, calls "socialism for the rich," Douglas considers simply "fabulous."

Literary fame may be the collective goal, but for many of these budding authors a doorman building, talk show appearances and all the sex you can handle are the coveted rewards.

And what a lot of sexual activity there is in this treacherous writers' roundelay. Leonard, intrigued by the wild exhibitionism of Izzy (Jennifer Ikeda), praises her story at the expense of Kate's, which he keeps harking back to as though recalling a nightmare he can't shake off.

Of course he's eager to get Izzy into bed, but he's not the only one. Martin succumbs to her uninhibited charms after he moves into Kate's place out of economic necessity and squelches any possibility of romance with her as he and Izzy turn every corner of the fabulous apartment into their private love nest.

Rebeck, a prolific playwright (her "Poor Behavior" had its premiere last year at the Mark Taper Forum) and TV writer (who created the NBC backstage Broadway soap opera "Smash") is never more amusing than when exposing the monstrous self-interest of otherwise decent people. Too often, however, she settles for sitcom laughs, enjoying the hackneyed ha-ha-ha of Kate consoling herself with a tub of ice cream rather than probing more deeply into her most complicated character's consciousness.

On Broadway, Gold's production of "Seminar" was dominated by Alan Rickman's marvelously Mephistophelean turn as Leonard, a character the British veteran portrayed with a hangover squint and a rumbling voice that caressed words with the intensity of a lifelong lover of them.

Goldblum doesn't give off the same literary aura. More West Coast than East Coast, he looks and acts like a formerly cool film director who has had to accept teaching gigs once the studios stopped calling. If perfectly chiseled sentences still thrill his Leonard, it doesn't really show — this guy seems to be undressing his students even when supposedly paring down their prose.

Goldblum's performance changes the play but doesn't rob it of all its pleasure. He's just sinister in a more generalized contemporary urban way. But that's all that's needed to set up the backbiting antics of Leonard's all-too-avid apprentices.

Gold's strength as a director is in ensemble work, and the four actors playing the student roles are as good if not better than their Broadway predecessors. Ikeda, as the rapacious Izzy, and Near-Verbrugghe, as the pretentiously posing Douglas, find human contours to roles that sometimes seem more driven by punch lines than psychology.

Keller, in what is perhaps the most realistically drawn characterization, helps us understand Martin not just as the group's standout writer but as a young man confounded as much by his foibles as the flawed choices before him. And Cash, turning in a fresh, unfussy portrayal of Kate, makes you wish that Rebeck had cared as much about this surprising character as her function in an increasingly overcooked plot.

The most honest thing about "Seminar" is its unsentimental take on a literary career. When Leonard asks Martin at the end of the play how serious he is about becoming a writer, the question hangs in the air like a Faustian deal demanding his soul as down payment.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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