Some plays have become classics of the stage because they have a fierce moral center. Others have succeeded through the ways in which they deliberately comment on the lack of such a center in contemporary society.
Theresa Rebeck’s acclaimed 2011 black comedy “Seminar,” succeeds because it refuses to give any character the moral upper hand, creating a text of vicious highs and lows that critiques, to quote Sondheim, “the art of making art.” Its new staging in Austin by Jarrott Productions does a superb job of bringing out the ferocious nature of the text, balanced by a great deal of successful comedy and nuanced characters that manage to remain just this side of likable.
“Seminar” follows four young New York writers who have each paid $5,000 to take part in an exclusive writing seminar helmed by a savagely acerbic teacher. With a heady mix of sex, desire, finances and power dynamics, the play follows the group through several classes, chronicling the relationships, careers and love triangles (quadrangles? pentagons?) that develop.
Director Bryan Bradford’s take on the play is stylish without being flashy. The majority of the action takes place in one Upper West Side apartment, and the stark white set designed by Michael Krauss (and subtly lit by Chris Conard) reflects the blank page that these writers are using to create both their stories and their lives. The transitions between scenes are quick-paced, thanks to simple but clever costuming by Colleen PowerGriffin and spirited sound design from Craig Brock, which means that the energy of the story never falters, creating a tight, dense, 90-minute play.
Given the relatively simple staging, much of the weight of the production falls upon its cast of five actors, all of whom are up to the task. One gets the feeling here, moreso than in many other productions, that each actor is absolutely convinced that their character is in the right at all times, and indeed an argument can be made that even at their most sadistic moments, every person on stage is making an accurate point. In this way, the performances underscore one of the text’s key messages — that both life and people are complicated things, and to accurately capture that reality means to show individuals in both their best and worst light.
As the well-connected Douglas, Devin Finn is delightfully obnoxious, countered with an almost puppy dog-like naivete that makes him endearing nonetheless. In contrast, Regan Goins’ portrayal of provocative sexpot Izzy is so straightforwardly self-aware that it’s hard not to admire her bluntness. Brooks Laney and Sarah Zeringue, as Martin and Kate, are given deeper layers by the text, which each of them mines to create well-rounded characters with dark edges. Zeringue, in particular, is so good at portraying ingénue-like tropes that the revelations of her own ethical breaches are devastating even if they are fairly obviously telegraphed by the play itself.
Finally, as the frequently mean-spirited writing teacher Leonard, Colum Parke Morgan shines, bringing charm and depth to a character who could simply read as a cackling villain in less deft hands. Instead, Morgan plays Leonard as the only character on stage who isn’t constantly convinced of his own moral self-righteousness, which gives him a freedom to be harsh, playful and even quite charming while still expressing some particularly callous truths.
Jarrott Productions’ presentation of “Seminar” is ultimately itself a classroom on character power dynamics, as mastered and presented by a good script and a great cast.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, with additional 7:30 p.m. performance May 21, through June 3
Where: Trinity Street Theatre, 901 Trinity St.