Todd Is My Slave Name

By Williamson, Kevin D. | New Criterion, February 2012 | Go to article overview

Todd Is My Slave Name

Williamson, Kevin D., New Criterion

Seminar is a play about writers, of both the aspiring and the past-expiration varieties, and, like most plays about writers, it is not especially well-written. There is some kind of nearly inescapable black hole of irony necessitating that plays about writers are not well-written, plays about comedians are not funny, plays about sex are not sexy, plays about politicians are politically illiterate, etc. Why this should be so is a mystery to me, though I suspect that in most cases it has to do with the writer's approaching a romanticized idea of the thing rather than the thing itself. Of course, a writer of all people should be immune to the romanticizing of writing, but in fact writers are the most susceptible to it: in love with the idea of being a writer rather than with writing itself, which is after all a kind of tedious and lonely form of labor.

Which is not to say that either accuracy or realism is desirable: A realistic play about writing, or about espionage, or about working on Wall Street, or committing adultery, or a few other things one might imagine, would be unbearably boring. But spies and corporate raiders and philanderers actually do something--something that might be worth watching--while writers just sit there and write. So, instead, our writer's stories are stories about writers feuding, scheming, having affairs, etc., and, inescapably, talking about writing, and talking and talking and talking about it. Listening to writers talk about writing is like watching somebody watch television.

Seminar finds four writing students shelling out large sums of money to attend a weekly session with the acerbic Leonard (Alan Rickman), a celebrated writer and editor. These four students come in a convenient two-girl/ two-boy configuration, which allows romantic rivalry to complement (or substitute for) the budding literary rivalries that the play is supposed to be about. Leonard helps this to happen by belittling the two men, seducing the two women, and relentlessly alienating all four. The seminar is hosted at the home of Kate, a Bennington-trained feminist in hereditary possession of a magnificent rent-controlled Upper West Side apartment, played by the terrific Lily Rabe. She is joined by the scheming careerist Izzy (Hettienne Park), who is present mainly to show us her breasts in the play's opening act and to give the boys a bone over which to fight. The boys are the lightly talented but heavily connected Douglas (Jerry O'Connell) and die tightly wound Martin (Hamish Linklater).

The main attraction of the play is the presence of Mr. Rickman, who, like half the Shakespearean actors in England, comes to New York periodically to perform in serious theater as a form of penance for having grown immensely rich from the Harry Potter movies. As purgations go, Seminar is a much lighter sentence to bear than the role in which I last encountered him, as John Gabriel Borkman at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's haunting production of Ibsen's eponymous play, (BAM'S Borkman was worth the ticket for its snowstorm alone, a tiling of austere and terrible beauty.) The star is, of course, terrifically fun to watch. Alan Rickman communicating disdain is like Baryshnikov dancing--one cannot help but admire the skill and commitment, and his performance is of the sort that gets critics consulting Roger's to supplement their stores of synonyms for "mordant." But it's only square-dancing, and the playwright Theresa Rebeck hasn't got the choreography quite right.

The structure of the play is uninventive, and the characterization verges on the cartoonish. Like Ethan Coen's beleaguered Happy Hour heroine, Seminar's sensitive young feminist takes to shoveling Haagen-Dazs into her gullet when her feelings have been hurt, a device which is too tired even for a television comedy. It is clear from the first minutes of the play that the young man least in awe of Leonard--and who pointedly never shares his work with his fellow students--shall be unveiled in the last act as the Next Great Young Writer, die discovery of whom will in part redeem Leonard and justify his abuse, which was meted out, you must understand, in the high cause of Literature. …

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