SF Playhouse stages “Seminar”


Writers work up big laughs at SF Playhouse

How much would you pay for the truth? Five thousand bucks? Would you regret ponying up if the truth shot you down?

Truth of sorts, for exactly five thousand dollars, is on offer to a quartet of aspiring writers in Theresa Rebeck’s sharply funny Seminar, now at San Francisco Playhouse. It’s a truth that stings, a truth that makes the audience laugh.  I laughed a lot during opening night, which nudged me to recall the pleasure other Rebeck plays have given me: The Scene, staged by SF Playhouse a couple of seasons ago, and Mauritius at Magic Theatre.

Rebeck finds the comedy in desperation: people want something so much—social approval, artistic success, a rare stamp—that they go a little nuts. They lose perspective, they posture, they flail, while we sit back and grin.  Rebeck can sew a play up as tight as a drum—she offers the pleasure of structure—but her greatest gift is for dialogue. When she puts a gang of wary, self-interested aspirants onstage, firing accusations and retorts like bullets, the comedy takes off. The subtext of sex helps, crooking its naughty, come-hither finger at everyone. In Seminar you’re never sure who will sleep next with whom.

Most of the action takes place in a well-appointed room in a rent-controlled flat in New York’s upper west side, where four hopeful young writers, two women, Kate and Izzy, and two men, Douglas and Martin, have contracted to meet weekly with famous writer, Leonard, to hone their writing skills and, they hope, to find fame and fortune in print.  The full-of-himself Douglas has had some success with the New Yorker, but the others are unknowns.  As for their whip-thin, softly growling guru, he’s past his prime. He has a few well-received books behind him, but a plagiarism scandal stalled his career, and now he’s a globe-trotting journalist.

We meet the students as they wait for Leonard to appear for the first time, their competitive edginess revving them up, prompting them to posture and pick at one another. They’ve paid big bucks they can hardly afford for his words of wisdom, but when he finally strides among them, indifferent to their needs and lost in himself, he doesn’t pull any punches. He lets them have it right in the gut, but he’s honest, and when he reads something he likes, he says so.

Seminar is ninety minutes of sizzling gamesmanship, and SF Playhouse does as well as can be imagined with it. Its production is a high-style entertainment. Amy Glazer’s direction orchestrates the conflicts beautifully and lands all the comic punches with just the right weight, and her cast goes at the material with panache: Lauren English as the self-doubting Kate, who eats to calm her anxiety; Natalie Mitchell as the opportunistic Izzy (the least fleshed-out role); Patrick Russell as the posturing Douglas; and James Wagner as seemingly clueless, reluctant Martin, who may be the most talented of them all. Soft-spoken Charles Shaw Robinson plays the mentor from hell. His merciless barbs make your jaw drop and make you sputter laughs at the same time.

Bill English’s handsome set provides the extra pleasure of surprise, when it revolves to an entirely different location for the final surprising scene. Abra Berman dresses the cast perfectly, and Mark Hueske and Theodore J.H. Hulsker provide, respectively, fine sound and lighting.

—Robert Hall

Seminar plays on Post Street until June 14th, followed by SF Playhouse’s summer offering, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical, Into the Woods. For tickets/information, call 415-677-9596 or visit 

Photo: Frustrated, Kate (Lauren English) commits to getting fat while Martin (James Wagner) mocks.