Jarrott Productions’ ‘Seminar’ is a witty, affective peek into the inner workings of the literati

David Jarrott’s Jarrott Productions may only be three seasons old, but in that time it has become one of the city’s most acclaimed companies, thanks to an intelligent choice of plays and professional productions. The company seems to be continuing this trend with their latest, a perfectly cast and thoughtfully produced presentation of Theresa Rebeck’s Broadway hit, Seminar. This tale of five very different writers coming together under the tutelage of a washed up author is full of surprising emotion and rigorous intellectual energy, and director Bryan Bradford brings this to vivid life thanks to a talented cast and crew.

The danger of filling a play with intellectuals is that it can quickly become stuffy or esoteric, but Rebeck has a clever way around this, by showing these characters’ vulnerabilities. In the process of watching each of these writers get their work picked apart, we get to see that part of themselves they hate most, as if each of their hearts were laid bare. Near the end of the play, not even the teacher, Leonard, is safe, as his own faults are brought to the fore. This is greatly aided by the casts’ sensitive performances, which never stray too far into stereotype or easy caricature. It’s surprising just how affecting the play is, as in the wrong hands this kind of material could quickly become insufferable.

When casting the role of Leonard, performed on Broadway by such luminaries as Jeff Goldblum and the late Alan Rickman, it’s paramount that the actor be a bastion of charisma. The character is often so cavalier, cut-throat, and even reprehensible, that without inherent charm the character could become intolerable. It’s to our benefit, then, that they brought in Colum Parke Morgan for the role, a ball of pure charm, who practically stole the show in Austin Shakespeare’s production of Much Ado About Nothing. When he lambastes the other characters’ writing, he’s somehow able to make us both hate him, understand him, and at times even believe him. He has the ability to deliver an insult as if it’s a compliment, with even his most cutting critiques coming off more as tough love than out-and-out harassment. Part of this stems from Rebeck’s intelligent writing for the character, but Morgan certainly brings his own attitude to the role, able to seem both carefree and delicate simultaneously throughout.

A lot of media has a certain way of writing promiscuous characters. They are often shown as vapid or unintelligent, and we’re often not meant to take them seriously. Early on, both Rebeck and actress Regan Goins make it clear that Izzy is going to be neither of these things. Though she comes on to most of the male cast, we see that her writing is just as  good, if not better, than that of the other writers, in no small part because she’s so confident in her sexuality, and brazen with her urges. Goins tackles the role with a self-assurance and unabashedness that’s both enthralling and refreshing, demanding our attention with every scene.

The secret star of the piece, however, may be Brooks Laney as Martin. While early on he seems jaded and cynical, it quickly comes to light that this is only to mask his own insecurity, and that he cares more about his writing than anyone there. He believes writing a sacred expression of one’s soul, and so therefore showing anyone his writing is like sheathing his own life’s blood to the reader. His hang dog demeanor belies a joyful inner light, and a intellectually fierceness that is simply exhilarating to watch, especially in the play’s last act. Laney is the kind of actor who can portray so much in a simple facial expression, or in the way he tackles a line, and he’s not afraid to show vulnerability and weakness to get to the raw, emotional core of the character.

It’s obvious that director Bryan Bradford and his team have put quite a bit of thought into every element of this production. Whether it’s Michael Krauss’s simple bleak white set, which acts a empty canvas for the power of Rebeck’s smart writing and complicated characters, backed by subtle but effective lighting by Chris Conard; Colleen PowerGriffin’s thoughtful, modular costume design, which instantly gives us helpful pieces of information on the character without seeming overdone or cliche, and even evolves with the characters; to the clever staging, which speaks to the characters’ relationships without those characters speaking one word. When you combine all this, along with the impressive performances from these young actors, you create a night of insightful, polished theatre from a promising young theatre.

Seminar is playing through June 3rd at the Trinity Street Theatre. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit their website at jarrottproductions.com.

Photo courtesy of Steve Williams. 

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