The would-be writers come and go, prating of Yaddo and Inigo ... as Eliot might have written in an updated "Prufrock." And also of interiority and exteriority, the MacDowell Colony, plagiarism, canny career moves ... and who's doing what sexually to whom.
The initial speaker is Douglas (Andy Bean). If you couldn't even hear what he's saying you'd still know from the visual clues that he's the most comically self-promoting young writer among the four 20- or 30-somethings gathered for a private writing seminar in Theresa Rebeck's wonderfully sharp, funny new comedy, which debuted on Broadway last year and now is at City Theatre.
The other three are Izzy (Nadia Gan), a woman alert to all the angles, including those of the bedroom; Martin (Charles Socarides), the angry young man who's slow to expose his writing to unfriendly comment; and our apparent heroine, Bennington grad Kate (Rebecca Harris), whose rich upper West Side Manhattan apartment we're in.
They've pooled their money ($5,000 each) for a 10-session seminar with the famous Leonard (Daniel Gerroll), once a noted writer himself, now an even more noted editor and teacher with a sideline in journalism from foreign hot spots and an appetite for hot young bodies, who also does some showing off of his own.
As the sessions progress -- the 100-minute play is built up of some 10 or a dozen scenes -- Leonard proves a no-holds-barred critic, lacerating their writing, never so much as when he damns with witheringly accurate faint praise: "Why don't you write for Hollywood?".
Prospective audiences may be pleased (or not) that the flashes of frontal and dorsal female nudity of the Broadway production are gone. City Theatre regulars also may be pleased (or not) to see a high-profile Broadway play on a stage best known for risky new work. This is no potluck meal but a pre-tested comedy of great skill and surprising heart.
It's surprising because, with all the wit with a satiric edge, we do gradually come to feel for the four, subjected to Leonard's verbal lashings, which are sharper for being so matter-of-fact. More remarkable, we come also to feel for Leonard, as we peek beneath his own bristling, self-defensive carapace.
Granted, there is something nearly formulaic in the way those offensive defenses are peeled back. You can see the revelations of sensitivity coming. But there are twists that will surprise you. The result is to humanize characters who had seemed just targets of satire. And with all the sex (and adult language -- consumer alert!), it's remarkable that the play takes a surprising and satisfying parental turn, although in a surprising direction.
As with any writing about writing, you have to take the writing that's under discussion on faith. Leonard picks up some pages and within a sentence or two knows if it's good or bad, partly evidence of his acuity but also a convention you have to accept to make the play possible.
As much an object of desire as these pretty young adults is designer Tony Ferrieri's opulent set, which includes a chandelier and walls of books that are prettily lit, allowing scene changes to flicker past like small light shows -- lighting design by the ubiquitous Andy Ostrowski. There's also a double stage revolve that makes the biggest scene change the quickest of all.
The result, given the shallow depth of City's main stage, is a test of a director's skills of actor placement, and Tracy Brigden passes with flying colors. Even better is her casting, providing actors who fit their roles perfectly.
Ms. Gan and Mr. Bean are remarkable in revealing the dimensions in characters who could seem designed just for comic relief. Mr. Socarides plays the angry scold with conviction -- he's funny, too -- and then earns his surprising growth at the end. Ms. Harris, whom we know well, is perfect as the entitled rich girl who has to be liberated from her Jane Austen fixation to discover the robust appetites beneath.
Mr. Gerroll seizes a role distinguished by Alan Rickman on Broadway and gives it his own sour anger and sneaky charisma, making the twists of the plot plausible while revealing enough complexities within to justify the surprising ending.
A prolific playwright, Ms. Rebeck is now inevitably identified first as the creator of TV's "Smash." As that suggests, she's a slick comic writer. So it's appropriate that "Seminar" could be said to focus on the age-old question of whether it's possible to teach creative writing.
Everyone pretty well agrees that it isn't, although lots of people do, witness the huge creative writing sections of college English departments. That's because writing fiction is a mystery, not to mention a career, to which many aspire. This underlies much of the play's comedy. But its deeper appeal comes from the heart, which may or may not be engaged by fiction but is certainly engaged by Ms. Rebeck's play.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson:email@example.com.