Well-written characters draw you into KNOW’s writing ‘Seminar’

Reviewed by Nancy Oliveri

It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.

This is what we tend to tell people who are trying to break into anything that will make them famous or successful, however they define it. And it’s one of the themes in Theresa Rebeck’s dialogue-rich two-act play, Seminar, about four young writers and their older, possibly wiser but definitely jaded, privately hired writing professor. 

Joanna Patchett plays Kate, a comparatively wealthy young woman who hosts a 10-week writing seminar in her posh New York apartment. She is trying to get a short story she wrote (and continued to write for six years after graduation from Bennington) into the hands of someone who can critique it and maybe pull the strings needed to have it published by The New Yorker or other literary magazine.

“People like my story!” she declares. But do they?

Patchett’s  delivery is authentic, if a little too conversational. It reminds me of Laura Dern in Jurassic Park, but Kate deals with a different kind of dinosaur here. Her performance is believable as she bravely takes no-holds-barred criticism by Leonard, the group’s instructor, energetically played by Mike Arcesi. Leonard is an accomplished writer with a dubious past who has been reduced to overcharging for his editorial and critical services to starry-eyed literary wannabes. He chides all of them for not broadening their experiences beyond Manhattan to find good copy.

I’ve seen Arcesi in a several other plays in which his interpretation of his character has not been dissimilar to what he does with Leonard, but he seems to have even more fun with this role. You really want to hate him in this, and that’s the point. Nails it, in more ways than one. The age disparity between him and the rest of the cast made me — appropriately — a little queasy.

Annie Fabiano plays Izzy, a flouncy, uninhibited young woman who probably can’t write a credible sentence, a fact overlooked by Leonard, who is as nice to her as he is cruel to the others. You can guess where that ends up. With Fabiano and Patchett, you have two actors who could almost be sisters, but the personality contrast between Izzy and Kate is stark enough that you won’t confuse them.

Nick Ponterio is Douglas, who enjoys flinging fake words around such as“exteriority” and “interiority” in order to sound smart. When he is cruelly taken down by Leonard who implies that he is a hack-in-training, Ponterio, not just Douglas, is feeling it. Maybe one of the more “method” actors in this show, his performance is mostly memorable in that slow way that a portrayal comes back to haunt you later.

I was most struck by Erik Young’s interpretation of the multi-faceted Martin, who has decided opinions about his fellow seminar takers and whose trajectory takes some unexpected turns as he looks for the truth. Poor as dirt but possibly the most talented writer of the four, he keeps his guard up higher and thicker than a proposed immigration wall. Just when you think, and maybe hope, that Rebeck has wrapped up the story, along come Martin’s epiphanies, and they are worth waiting for.

Cast of Seminar, l to r, Erik Young, Anna Fabiano, Mike Arcesi, Joanna Patchett, Nick Ponterio

L to R, Erik Young, Annie Fabiano, Mike Arcesi, Joanna Patchett, Nick Ponterio

Rich with stereotypes about Upper West Side hipsters, rent-controlled apartments, hooking up, sucking up and packing up your stuff to couch surf while keeping your friends close and your rivals closer, Seminar is a play that is great theater, if you don’t mind the frequent use of a now-common playwright staple beginning with F. If your tender ears can handle it (and of course, they can), you should join the other at-capacity audiences that have filled the KNOW Theatre in recent months.

Tim Gleason, the company’s artistic director — and director of this play — admits that all those filled seats are spoiling him, but he very humbly expresses his gratitude at every performance, sometimes with allusions that evoke a Catholic Mass, an interesting contrast for sure.

Seminar’s stage manager is Duncan Lyle. The space, designed by Kat D’Andrea, KNOW’s scenic artist and house manager, looks like a “staging” at a high-end furniture store, which is a good thing. I found some of the lighting a little harsh, however, because one light reflects off the glass over a painting in Kate’s beautiful apartment, and another is tilted a little too directly at the house.

The one scene change is carefully completed in the limited space and offers some insight into the work that went into creating an environment for these actors to inhabit. Seminar’s set construction is by the multi-talented Pat Morrissey.

As Gleason points out, Seminar offers an instructive contrast to the last play featured here, Saving Mr. Green. That play was also set in the Big Apple, but in a decidedly less tony part of town, and with less conceited characters. 

IF YOU GO: Performances began last weekend (April 8-10) at KNOW Theatre, 74 Carroll St, Binghamton. Broome County’s intimate off-off-Broadway venue will present Seminar at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 3 p.m. Sundays through April 24. Tickets are $20 (seniors, $18; students, $15 for students). Reserve your seat by calling 607-724-4341 or going online to www.knowtheatre.org.

Pay-What-You-Can-Night is 8 p.m. tomorrow (April 14).

Free parking for shows is available in the lot across the street from the theater.

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