By Terry Byrne / Globe Correspondent
STONEHAM — Theresa Rebeck returns to her favorite theme — betrayal — in the witty dark comedy “Seminar.” But in this Stoneham Theatre production, Rebeck’s plot machinations feel labored, and the five-member cast struggles to find a pace that doesn’t leave them spinning.
The premise of “Seminar” involves a quartet of aspiring writers who pay a famous journalist/editor/novelist to lead a private writing workshop in one writer’s spacious Manhattan apartment. Within the first 10 minutes of the play, Rebeck defines her writers/students as teetering between self-importance and self-loathing. They insist that writers are the “soul of the culture,” but they are always desperate for the slightest bit of encouragement. The students include Douglas (Jesse Hinson), a well-connected pompous ass and veteran of several writers’ colonies; Bennington grad Kate (Liz Hayes), whose family owns the apartment; the opportunistic Izzy (Sophorl Ngin), who won’t hesitate to use sex to get ahead; and the hapless Martin (Jordan Ahnquist), whose need for sex and money nearly overwhelms his talent for fiction.
Each of these characters has potential, but Rebeck’s decision to spotlight the situation rather than them keeps the focus superficial. Director Weylin Symes understands the importance of keeping the shallow banter moving at a fast clip, but he doesn’t supply any sense of rhythm, so that the play starts to feel like a train that’s racing down the tracks too fast.
The catalyst for the plot is Leonard (Christopher Tarjan), the group’s seminar leader whose talent revolves around his ability to swiftly reduce his students’ soul-baring work to ashes. As Leonard, Tarjan is self-absorbed to the point of distraction, rarely making eye contact with the students, always appearing surprised that he’s landed in the apartment after returning from some near-death experience in Rwanda, Somalia, or other Third World country. Leonard’s real skill lies in baiting his students in a sadistic effort to inspire and instruct them, but Tarjan is so focused on maintaining a rapid-fire pace, it’s hard to imagine his Leonard as someone whose opinion should be taken seriously.
Still, as the characters move from the leather couch to the leather chairs in Christopher Ostrom’s nearly abstract living room set, we listen as Leonard imperiously labels Kate a whiner, dismissing her Jane Austen-inspired story as a “soul-sucking waste,” and recommends that Douglas head to Hollywood because his work is so hollow.
Hayes does a wonderful job exploring Kate’s clichéd affectations (eating ice cream with potato chips when she’s depressed), as well as her ability to develop some backbone and turn Leonard’s criticism to her advantage. Hayes is such a commanding presence that her Kate, rather than Leonard, becomes the focus of this production. That shift has a lot of potential, but Rebeck is so intent on including all of her plot twists and revelations, she short-circuits the opportunity for believable character development.
Rebeck’s dialogue is reliably funny, whether her characters are bickering about Jack Kerouac versus Jane Austen or skewering the fiction that appears in The New Yorker, but even as we laugh at their repartee, we never really care what happens to any of them.
When Kate announces that “fraud is a way of life — especially in the arts,” her cynicism seems sadly appropriate.
Terry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.