PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Seminar — Bad Teacher Makes Good

Meet the first-nighters at the Broadway opening of Theresa Rebeck's Seminar starring Alan Rickman.

Alan Rickman; guests Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Christine Ebersole, Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman
Alan Rickman; guests Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Christine Ebersole, Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman (Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN)

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Snape snipes again in Seminar, a paper-cut of a comedy from Theresa Rebeck, which had a starry opening-night Nov. 20 at the John Golden Theatre.

He's called Leonard this time out, but a more sinister mentor hasn't come this way since Severus Snape ruled the roost at Hogwarts, creating all sorts of CGI conflicts for Harry Potter and the gang. Cinching this association is the fact that both roles are the nefarious work of Alan Rickman, who is as poisonously imperious and professorial as they come. Here, instead of young bibbidi-bobbidi-boo Brits, his target group is a post-college quartet of novice novelists who subject themselves and their prose to the withering heights of his criticism. Constructive, it ain't.

Rickman didn't squirm a bit when these parallel lives were pointed out to him after the show at the Gotham party. Indeed, he rather embraced the idea. "Both of them," he said, waving his "eureka" finger in the air, "turn out to be great truth-tellers."

Evil-geniuses-with-erudite-streaks wear well on Rickman, who speaks their minds exquisitely. "I love playing Leonard because he's very demanding. You can't kinda wander off. It's a big deep-breath part, but I'm working with such fantastic actors that life is a lot more pleasurable than it might be if you thought about it beforehand. "I love all the scenes," he insisted, declining to name a particular favorite (even those with golden arias on the art of writing for him to articulate — beautifully). "One gets put up against another so you can't kinda pick out one. They're all accumulative."

Leonard has not come to the teaching profession the old-fashioned Mr. Chips route but rather as a literary light almost extinguished by some sort of scandal, emerging from that with plenty of advice to offer aspiring writers — at $5,000 a head.

Weekly classes are conducted in a rambling, rent-stabilized apartment on the Upper West Side of one of the wannabe writers, Kate ( Lily Rabe). Democratic devil that he is, Leonard goes into a quick "Hump the Hostess" game, leveling Kate first with his cruel criticism — sort of Simon Callow-style without the charm — then surveys the shivering remains of the class, sorting them out one at a time.

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This could be a simple shooting-fish-in-a-barrel exercise, but Rebeck has armed the fish and allowed them to shoot back. What starts out as word play becomes a power play.

In her best, and first, Broadway role since Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Rabe finds that the quality of mercy is considerably strained here and retaliates accordingly, making her character count almost as much as Rickman — in some respects, more when she becomes the audience's point of view. "People have said that," Rabe related. "I think that's such a wonderful compliment. Whatever way into the play the audience finds is great. If it's through Kate, that is wonderful.

"I love the part. I'm loving her more and more every day. I'm having such a great time. It's just a real thrill to be on stage with these actors. They're very, very special."

Hamish Linklater, whose Martin may be the most gifted scribe in the room — and also unfortunately the most self-conscious — puts in some commendable head-butting with Leonard as well. "I like that Martin bites back at the gun that's shooting at him," Linklater admitted. "He's never asked for help. He's never shown his work. He's never made himself vulnerable in that way, which, as an artist, is really important to do at some point. For me…asking for help, and saying 'I don't know what to do,' is really a challenge. Yeah, I related to all of that."

Completing the class with twin loads of ambition are Douglas ( Jerry O'Connell), a cocky preppy with sights set on The New Yorker, and Izzy ( Hettienne Park), a sexpot craving a nice sound bite in New York magazine.

O'Connell, who made the press rounds with the Mrs. ( Rebecca Romijn, Mystique of the "X-Men" movies), said he signed up for this because he always wanted to work on a Rebeck play and had auditioned for a few without any luck.

Douglas, he added, "is completely different from who I am as a person, so I'm really playing a character. I just knew I was going to have a lot of fun doing that. And I am. It's such an intimate job being an actor on Broadway because you're always with your cast — from rehearsal to performance, you're with each other all the time."


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Park couldn't be more pleased with her character: "Izzy's pretty ballsy and provocative and smart. I looked forward to it every single day, and I still look forward to coming to the show every single night. It helps having Alan Rickman for your teacher. He's the classiest, most generous and genuinely hilarious man. He makes it really easy."

Linklater, O'Connell and Park are all making their Broadway debuts with Seminar, as is their referee, Sam Gold, who has staged some of the best Off-Broadway in recent years ( Tigers Be Still, The Aliens, Circle Mirror Transformation). He and Rebeck joined the cast on stage for a final bow — an unnerving experience for the Broadway newbie.

"My palms got sweaty. I didn't expect to feel nervous getting up on stage, but I did. How do actors do it? It's nerve-wracking. You gotta have nerves of steel to do that."

While making Seminar Broadway-ready, the busy, chronically multi-tasking Gold cast his next with his left hand. "I have a wonderful cast for Look Back in Anger," he said of the John Osborne drama he's reviving Jan. 13-April 8 at Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre. For the three leads, he's bringing Matthew Rhys, Anastasia Griffith and Sarah Goldberg over from Britain and drafting Adam Driver, lately of Man and Boy.

The prolific Rebeck, whose topics for plays are endlessly rangy, claimed that she couldn't recall where this idea came from, but some have suggested there are signs of Gordon Lish in the flamboyantly unorthodox tutoring of Leonard. Rebeck does know she hasn't participated, on either side of the podium, in literary seminars like the one she depicted, but she did throw a casual reference to the writing seminar conducted at Yale by Robert Penn Warren, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "All the King's Men." That, she said, "was my little insider homage to David Milch. He was always quoting Mr. Penn Warren. [David] ran 'NYPD Blue,' and I worked for him for a while. I learned a lot about writing from him, in fact."

Hamish Linklater
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Much of Rebeck's time these days goes toward the NBC-TV series she created about contemporary Broadway musical-making. Titled optimistically "Smash," the series — much-anticipated by the theatre community — will premiere Monday, Feb. 6, 2012.

"A lot of the plot is still evolving," Rebeck confessed. "There is a lot that's structured, of course, but some of that keeps changing so you sorta have to stay on your toes all of the time. We're working on the eighth episode right now, and we're going to have 15 for the first season. We should be shooting until the middle of March."

"Smash" was well represented at Seminar's opening, from stars ( Debra Messing, Christian Borle, Anjelica Huston, Jack Davenport, Raza Jaffrey, Megan Hilty, Jamie Cepero and Will Chase) to executive producers ( Craig Zadan and Neil Meron) to writer ( David Marshall Grant, himself an actor and playwright of note, helping Rebeck fill in the blanks). Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman are writing a song for every episode, not counting the three they wrote for the pilot for a supposed Marilyn Monroe musical).

Other first-nighters included movie producer Paula Wagner (checking out the Broadway scene and pondering a possible change of venue), theatrical illustrator Robert DeMichiell (whipping up a poster for Roundabout's one-night-only benefit concert of She Loves Me with that Shakespearean chanteuse, Kelli O'Hara), original cast member Lonny Price (who's working on a documentary about Merrily We Roll Along — and who better?), Private Lives' Kim Cattrall and Other Desert Cities' Judith Light (enjoying the joys of 45th Street stardom by walking mere yards to a Broadway opening), Jesse Tyler Ferguson (winging in from the West Coast and his "Modern Family" expressly for the opening of his old Shakespeare in the Park buds, Rabe and Linklater), Dee Hoty (Dallas Theatre Center-bound next month to sing Mercedes McCambridge's Oscar-nominated role in Giant: the Michael John LaChiusamusical), Sen. Frank Lautenberg, playwrights David Rabe and Amy Herzog (father of the star and wife of the director), a Once contingent (director John Tiffany and producers John Hart and Frederick Zollo), Tony-winning twosome Marsha Norman and Jason Robert Brown (huddling over musicalizing The Bridges of Madison County), Christine Ebersole and Edward Hibbert (resurrecting their Noel Coward act, Love, Noel, for more club dates, including Feinstein's next year).

Also: Mike Nichols, Denis Leary, Reg Rogers, Christopher Evan Welch, Andy Cohen, Judith Ivey, Jeremy Shamos, Jaime Cepero, Johnny Weir, Justin Mikita, Amy Ryan, Guy Stroman, Sean Patrick Henry, Lily Collins and Rick Nicita.

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