Peter D. Kramer

Mr. Chips he’s not

In Reviews on November 21, 2011 at 9:18 am

There’s not a lot to like about Leonard, the arrogant author-turned-put-down-artist at the center of Theresa Rebeck’s “Seminar,” which opened last night at Broadway’s Golden Theatre.

Played by the marquee draw of Alan Rickman (of “Harry Potter” fame), this former lion of the literary world is weary and wounded, snarling criticism at the four students who have plopped down $5,000 each for the privilege of having ten weeks of his “insight.”

He reduces one to tears when he won’t go beyond the first five words of her long-simmering story, praises a second just to get her into bed, calls a third a pussy and the fourth a whore.

Mr. Chips, he’s not.

In scene after scene in this intermissionless 110-minute wonder, Rebeck lets us in on the lives of the pompous but connected Douglas (Jerry O’Connell), the earnest but teetering Kate (Lily Rabe), the pragmatic and ambitious Izzy (Hettienne Park) and Martin, who calls it like he sees it, railing against superficiality even as he fears sharing his own work (Hamish Linklater).

Rabe is a Tony-nominated Broadway vet (“The Merchant of Venice”), the daughter of the late great Jill Clayburgh and David Rabe. In her last outing, she matched wits with Pacino, as Shylock. Here, she’s up against an erudite brawler of another order, whose insults are surgical in their nature, intended to wound deep. Rabe is more than up to the task, playing all angles of Kate, a character Rebeck endows with a long and challenging arc.

Park and O’Connell make fine Broadway debuts, but it is Linklater — so memorable as Sir Andrew Aguecheek in the Public’s production of “Twelfth Night” in Central Park a few summers ago — who is the breakout star here, in a smashing Broadway debut. Yes, he has been on TV, as the kid brother to Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ character in “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” but Linklater’s acting chops began much earlier, in the Berkshire hills where his mother founded the esteemed acting troupe Shakespeare & Co.

Linklater plays Martin as clear-eyed and likeable, but he also finds a deeper well of secrecy that Rebeck plants there. It turns out that Martin isn’t just an on-looker. He belongs here. And he and Leonard, instant adversaries, have more in common than one might think at the outset.

Rebeck, a Pulitzer finalist for the post-9/11 “Omnium Gatherum,” co-written with Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros, captures the milieu of a writing seminar perfectly — a room full of nerves, esteem issues, jealous and outright hatred.

Leonard tells them they are not in this together. This is a bloodthirsty battle for hearts and minds.

When he enters, he immediately begins to try to pit writer against writer, to get at their true feelings. Of course, he does this through insult and challenge, charging the air with toxic particles.

After dissecting a story — and its writer — he offers no apology for his ferocity: “You asked for the truth,” he says. “This is the truth I have.”

Rickman brings a weariness to Leonard that is borne, we learn, of years of frustration and fear of his own. He may travel the world to see suffering, but this lion’s paws have their share of thorns.

Leonard returns from a trip to Somalia, where he watched warlords sitting on thrones made of food — nourishment they denied the starving masses.

He returns to the seminar and proceeds to deny real pedagogical nourishment to four students who are desperate for it, who yearn for a crumb from a man whose words brought him to the heights they seek.

“Heights?” he seems to say.

In a magnificent monologue late in the action, Leonard gives a glimpse of the writer’s life, warts and all, of slights endured, of battles with the bottle and his own personal windmills, of rejection and withering criticism. A romantic life? Hardly. It is must-see stuff, written beautifully and delivered with that weariness that speaks volumes. Rickman rivets, pacing back and forth, biting his words off bitterly.

“If criticism gets in,” he tells them, “you’re through.”

When Kate sees through Leonard’s craftiness and finds a way around it, her victory is short-lived, because Martin, it turns out, has something to share.

Leonard reads Martin’s pages and offers a one-word response: “Unmistakable.”

The allegiances shift in “Seminar” and the wily Leonard drives that, forcing the writers to come to terms with their own commitments, to question how far they’ll go to succeed, what deals they’ll make with which devils to push their work forward, which masters they’ll serve.

When the action shifts to Leonard’s book-lined apartment, the story takes a compelling and must-see turn, resolving into a satisfying conclusion that amounts, really, to just a beginning.

Photos by Jeremy Daniel: Top, the cast of “Seminar,” from left: Hamish Linklater, Alan Rickman, Lily Rabe (standing), Hettienne Park and Jerry O’Connell (foreground.) Second photo: Hamish Linklater, Hettienne Park, Lily Rabe and Jerry O’Connell. Third photo: Hamish Linklater and Alan Rickman.

“Seminar” at the Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St. between Broadway & 8th Ave. http://www.seminaronbroadway.com.

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