Stage Struck Review

Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years

Tag Archives: Theresa Rebeck

A “Seminar” to Remember: The writing process dissected for wry laughter at The Ahmanson

(L to R) Jennifer Ikeda, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe and Jeff Goldblum in “Seminar” (Photo by Craig Schwartz)

We have all become familiar, by now, with the concept of the “master class” – that point at which a budding musical talent plays for a great artist, in front of an audience, and that artist then offers words of wisdom to help the younger person improve his or her performance. Some may be less familiar with the writing workshop, where a successful published author gathers younger or less successful writers, reads their work and offers commentary upon what can be done to improve their work or make it more marketable. It can be illuminating. It can be grueling. Worse, particularly if you are the person whose work is torn apart, it can be honest.

Which forms the base for “Seminar,” Theresa Rebeck’s wry, sometimes dark comedy now at the Ahmanson Theatre. Here a group of writers, who rate from A to Z on the pomposity scale, have gathered in a New York apartment to hear their work evaluated by a famed if eccentric novelist. What ensues is a series of character studies, as people must handle the seeming brutality of a man who uses the truth to batter those he must serve to make a living. The more you know about the writing process, the funnier it all is, and yet the more disturbing at the same time.

Most certainly, as the famed author states up front, “Writers in their natural state are about as civilized as feral cats.”

Jeff Goldblum is Leonard that author – brutal, brutish, easily distracted by his own thought processes, and fascinating even to those who loathe him. In Goldblum’s hands he becomes a rather weedy-looking, oddly logical force of nature.

Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, as Douglas, the popular novelist dripping fame and platitudes, embodies the name-dropping success other writers will dismiss even as they envy. We’ve all met this guy. Jennifer Ikeda has a great time with the visceral, sexually fascinated Izzy – a fine writer who lives out her obsessions.

Aya Cash embodies the writer on the cusp of growth, as her Kate moves from despair to freshness in several parts of her life while in the very act of defying Leonard’s definition of her work. Perhaps most interesting as played is Greg Keller’s Martin, an introvert whose admiration of the Beats has him chasing his tail and sponging off of others rather than moving his admitted talent forward.

This remarkable ensemble cast achieves a seemingly effortless sense of life flow thanks to the precision of Rebeck’s words and the artfully invisible hand of director Sam Gold. He manages to keep anyone from becoming permanently loathsome, even as their pointed commentary sparks laughter and the occasional squirm of recognition. Kudos also to David Zinn for costumes and sets which create instant definitions and flesh out this already telling set of portraits.

“Seminar” uses brutal language to go along with its brutal characterizations. Do not go if the “f-word” disquiets you. Yet the sheer honesty of the appraisals, the genuine nature of the back stories, even the results of this ferocious encounter proves funny and fascinating, and has something fairly important to say about the difference between art and nurture. Go, if you dare. Honesty can be hard to take sometimes.

What: “Seminar” When: Through November 18, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $20 – $110 Info: (213) 972-4400 or

Poor Behavior: Nuanced Incivility as Clever Comedy

Johanna Day and Reg Rogers in the world premiere of Theresa Rebeck's Poor Behavior

When “God of Carnage” made its west coast debut at the Ahmanson Theatre last year it was an instant hit. Still it’s popularity was, for me, somewhat of a head-scratcher. The play’s use of the interactions of two couples as condemnation of societal norms was so ferocious that, taken at least at face value it seemed to do little other than pound one over the head with the rather basic message that we’re all really selfish animals. Its humor seemed aimed at making the audience confirm we find vicious brutality funny.

Fast forward to today, and the Mark Taper Forum’s offering of Theresa Rebeck’s “Poor Behavior.” Once again two couples’ interactions make social commentary, but this time it’s all more subtle. In the steam of manipulation, suspicion, madness and sensual despair one’s views of the participants change constantly. As characters play mind games on each other, the often very, very funny script plays the same unpredictable games on the viewer. It’s so much more exciting, so much more nuanced, and what brutality surfaces proves frankly so much more intellectually satisfying this way.

In this tale Ella (Johanna Day) and Peter (Christopher Evan Welch) have invited their oldest friends, Ian (Reg Rogers) and Maureen (Sharon Lawrence) to spend the weekend with them in their upstate cottage. The “success” of this venture is evident from the outset. The opening scene has Ella and Ian engaged in a heated, multi-level ethical argument fueled by a great deal too much wine. From this evolves the heightened atmosphere of what is gradually revealed to be a complicated interrelationship. The edge never leaves, though one approaches it from several angles.

Questions abound. Ian is a narcissist, but how much of his action is manipulation and how much a desperate attempt to move forward? Is Ella and Peter’s gentle, settled marriage really as stable as offered? Are Maureen’s sudden shifts a matter of subject-changing or instability? What does all of this say about the nature of friendship, of monogamy, and of the vagaries of maturity?

Day creates the connective tissue, as a woman caught in in the headlights, in an unfair and untenable position. Rogers vibrates with, among other things, a self-protective intellectual pose that can’t help but be maddening. Lawrence’s fine tuning of Maureen’s sudden emotional shifts gives her funny ravings a darker undertone. Welch provides the foundation, neatly underplaying his character’s obvious emotional turmoil in order to maintain order.

Director Doug Hughes interweaves the threads of this play like the sophisticated tapestry it should be. Every character has been peeled down to its core, and the very real-ness of people speaking this artful speech and wrapping around each other’s lives makes the humor, the pathos and the depth accessible and engaging. John Lee Beatty’s stunningly apt set centers the action and emphasizes that same sense of reality.

Through it all come foundational discussions about the nature of goodness – whether it exists and what it may be. For those trapped in this story, where some people do exhibit (to say the least) “Poor Behavior,” this becomes a foundational argument. In the end the take-aways will be long conversations on marriage, relationship, and that essential definition – whether anything can be classified as good. And in the meantime, you will have laughed heartily at it all.

What: “Poor Behavior” When: Through October 16, 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $20 – $65 Info: (213) 628-2772 or

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