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REVIEW: Phoenix Theatre's Seminar sends up writers

Never trust a wordsmith—that seems a moral of the story in Seminar. A writer, especially of fiction, works to persuade and to engross, and what's most dangerous is when that scribe himself starts believing the words coming from his own pen or mouth. Or from the heart.

This 90-minute play, running through Nov. 25 at the Phoenix Theatre's intimate Frank and Katrina Basile Theatre downstairs, ended its Broadway run this past May, It is incisive and quick-witted. It has to be, just as its players engage (and disengage) each other in a relentless assault of verbal volleys aimed at both their persons and their works. Think of it as an incredibly physical, grueling doubles tennis match, minus the sticks.

Dale McFadden directs and Bryan Fonseca produces this run, which features Bill Simmons in the lead role of Leonard, a washed-up novelist and writer who takes on four earnest young writers for a 10-week class in one of their homes. Lauren Briggeman plays Kate, a mousy redhead, who does but doesn't compete with Lisa Ermel's word-vixen Izzy for the affections of Martin (Samuel Fain). Neal Eggeson portrays human punching bag Douglas, a particularly grating and opportunistic peer who can't stop reminding everyone that The New Yorker is set to publish one of his stories.

This no-frills, dialogue-drenched tale proceeds at a measured but churning pace, with Leonard and the fearful foursome alternately badgering and consoling each other. Or at least the students console each other. Simmons chews up the scenery (namely, his castmates) in the robust role of Leonard, sounding and looking every bit the part. Ermel's Izzy is gorgeous, of course—even if she shares a name with that odd mascot from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics—and injects every scene she appears in with well-timed vigor.

Briggeman and Fain share the most stage time here, as Kate and Martin. What transpires between these two and among the lot here surprises a wee bit but happens fluidly and naturally. After all, writers have no ammunition without experiences, and thus they are always seeking their next great or gripping experience. In this show, then, the off-stage bedroom might have had a revolving door installed.

"The novel has fallen on hard times," Eggeson's Douglas utters fairly early in this gusty, sexy romp. He and his classmates feel the weight and the stress of trying to "make it!" as storytellers in an increasingly digital world. It makes sense then that they will be prone to act out, even lash out, irrationally.

The show rolls on seamlessly here but for a couple of elements: The Izzy character is dressed in such bright, memorable attire—yellow, hip-hugging jeans or orange leggings—that it's distracting when, in a scene allegedly played out two days later, she's wearing that same piece again. And at the end, one character's nonverbal appearance in the foreground, sitting contemplatively and removed from an exchange between two others, seems unnecessary. (Plus, that last scene belabors the points it seeks to score. How can we miss these characters if they never leave?)

A native Midwesterner, Theresa Rebeck, wrote this smart play, never overreaching with the dialogue. Everything these five people say seems a completely understandable (and often pompous) line, given the innate hubris involved with anyone who either is a writer or fancies himself as one. (Rebeck's new play, Dead Accounts, is set in Cincinnati, from which she hails, and is now in previews on Broadway with Katie Holmes as lead.)

The sharp writing injects a verve into the quintet onstage. A performance or a cast can be splendid, but it's smoke and mirrors if not buoyed by a meaty script. Luckily, Rebeck fully equips her players here, and the audience is given to guffaw and then viscerally scoff at one or all of them, sometimes in the same scene. Writers aspiring to be stars—they're just like us, only worse.


Seminar runs through Nov. 25. Show times vary. Phoenix Theatre, 749 N. Park Ave., 635-7529, phoenixtheatre.org.

Photos courtesy Phoenix Theatre