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.
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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