Review: Phoenix Theatre’s ‘Seminar’

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For the Midwest premiere of Theresa Rebeck’s recent Broadway play “Seminar” (through Nov. 25), the Phoenix Theatre has assembled an ideal local cast quintet, given them a smartly designed, equally attractive set to play in, and found an understanding director who doesn’t sacrifice the truths of the characters for laughs.

What the Phoenix can’t do, unfortunately, is rewrite the last scene of Theresa Rebeck’s play or change some of her blatantly false plot points.

For the most part, “Seminar,” which closed on Broadway just a few months ago, is an implausible but pleasurable comedy about a quartet of developing writers (Lauren Briggeman, Neal Eggeson, Lisa Ermel, Samuel Fain) who hire a legendary fiction scribe (Bill Simmons) to critique their work. In and around skirmishes with their take-no-prisoners teacher, they struggle with their muses and with one another in ways twentysomethings are prone to do. They learn about the skeletons in the closet of their self-absorbed mentor while figuring out how much truth they can really handle, both about their writer and about themselves.

In the intimate downstairs Basile Theatre, the characters seem more fragile than they did on Broadway, which works to the play’s advantage. And sharp directorial choices help turn potentially one note moments—including a true-telling session between the writer (Bill Simmons) and a pretentious student (Neal Eggeson)—into heartbreakers.

But I still lament the fact that Rebeck marginalizes Kate, her most interesting character, in order to make “Seminar” ultimately about the writer and chip-on-his-shoulder student Martin. Director Dale McFadden makes a noble effort to salvage it through staging, but it’s a band-aid on the playwright’s self-inflicted wound. A shame, since the rest of the most of the piece is in great shape.

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