By Manning Harris
fmanningh@gmail.com

Theresa Rebeck’s deliciously acerbic “Seminar” is having its Atlanta debut at Actor’s Express, running through June 16.  The play, directed by Freddie Ashley, closes out a very fine 25th  anniversary season for the Express, for which we offer our congratulations.

If “writers are not people,” as one of the characters here asserts, then we are treated to an evening of non-persons quibbling, quarreling, making love, and doing their damndest to make art.

But art isn’t easy, as the Sondheim lyric goes, and there are four youngish writers who have paid $5000 each for a 10-week writing seminar with the querulous, crotchety Leonard (Andrew Benator), a famous novelist who now spends most of his time chronicling the “terrifying nihilism” he finds in such countries as Somalia and Rwanda.

The sessions take place in Kate’s (Cara Mantella) Upper West Side apartment,  a rent-controlled gem that New Yorkers would kill for.  I found it amusing that her fellow writers resent Kate for having such a place (it’s really her family’s) even as they make full use of it, including the bedrooms.  Their unjustified ire only increases Kate’s insecurity about her writing and having it eviscerated by Leonard; of course he does this with almost everyone.  Ms. Mantella, by the way, has a gift of comic vulnerability combined with feistiness—she is quite a talent.

“Writers in their natural state are about as civilized as feral cats,” Leonard says, and proceeds to demonstrate his cheery theory.  He is what the renowned writer and artistic coach Julia Cameron (“The Artist’s Way”) would call a crazymaker, “charismatic but out of control, enormously destructive, long on problems and short on solutions.”  A polar opposite from Ms. Cameron, Leonard is short on encouragement but big on drama.

He was played in the Broadway run of “Seminar” by Alan Rickman, of “Harry Potter” fame, who fairly drips disdain.  Here Mr. Benator does the honors,  and it’s a fine performance, particularly when he shows us a more genteel side of Leonard in the final minutes of this 95 minute play.

Douglas (David Plunkett) is related to a famous playwright and is accused of being a name dropper.   Izzy (Bryn Striepe) finds herself the center of romantic conflicts even as she’s discovered to be a decent writer.  Martin, played by Barrett Doyle, has developed a handy defense mechanism in this shark pool of withering criticism:  He won’t show his work to anyone.  But Martin, who is low on funds, changes because he must change, and Mr. Doyle is more than up for the challenge.  His final moments with Martin are fine and well-played by both actors.

On opening night I sensed a certain tentativeness here and there, but I feel this will evaporate quickly, because this is a talented cast; and with Ms. Rebeck’s zingers one should swing for the fences.  If you’re involved in the arts, I think you’ll enjoy the evening even more.  If you’re a writer, “Seminar” is required viewing.

For tickets and information, visit actorsexpress.com.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.