Theresa Rebeck's 2011 play "Seminar" has several strong elements going for its West Coast premiere at the B Street Theatre. Beginning as a funny, biting satire of various East Coast literary tropes and types, the play effectively turns itself inside out to become an earnest, satisfying redemption drama. The turn is accomplished through a clever bit of writing and a powerful performance from Kurt Johnson.
Johnson plays Leonard, a burned-out legendary editor and former novelist-of-the-moment, now teaching an exclusive writing seminar to young aspiring writers. Leonard's withering critiques make tough love seem warm and fuzzy by comparison, leaving his students wondering why they've paid $5,000 to be brutally insulted and casually dismissed.
Leonard's observations, as uncomfortable (and cringingly funny) as they are, come with warnings that truth is about to be dispensed do you want to hear it? He's not being mean just to be mean. From his viewpoint, he's offering a kind of verbal shock therapy to his inoculated students and they, for the most part, take the licking and keep on ticking.
The writing group meets at the Upper West Side apartment of Stephanie Altholz's Kate, who takes the first beat-down after offering up a story she's been working on for six years.
Throughout "Seminar," Rebeck pokes fun at the pretensions of liberal arts colleges (Kate's attendance at Bennington is a running joke), writers' retreats and even the type of fiction published in the New Yorker Leonard calls it "the detached tone of perplexed intelligence."
Dan Fagan's Douglas is "not without talent," though Leonard tells him he'd be better off in Hollywood; Tara Sissom's pragmatic Izzy has a sexual spark in her work and personality, which catches Leonard's eye as well. Joseph O'Malley's dour Martin is the group's sulking cipher, not offering his own work while berating Leonard's methods and questionable socializing.
The play takes a schematic form of the classes' weekly meetings, as Rebeck pulls from her experience as a television writer on such shows as "Law and Order" and "NYPD Blue." Her sure-footed plot sticks plenty of romantic intrigues among the participants to go with the writing seminar's lessons.
Scenic designer Catherine Frye creates a sleek, open apartment for the class, and director Busfield lets the acerbic comedy flow over an audience that might not be quite sure what is coming.
Rebeck loves language and writing, and "Seminar" acts as a muddled valentine to those who try to write. The dissipation of fiction as an art form and the business of writing push Leonard to say, "It's not the writing that's the problem, it's everything else."
Though we see an obvious character at first in Johnson's Leonard, what Rebeck has packed underneath makes him worth watching.
Three 1/2 Stars
What: B Street Theatre presents the West Coast premiere of Theresa Rebeck's comedy drama about four young writers taking a class from a legendary older novelist.
When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays; 2 and 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 5 and 9 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 23.
Where: B Street Theatre Mainstage, 2711 B St., Sacramento.
Information: (916) 443-5300, www.bstreettheatre.org
Running time: One hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.
Note: Recommended for ages 18 and over due to nudity, adult content and language.