Stoneham’s ‘Seminar’: Young writers on the ropes

From the left, Liz Hayes, Christopher Tarjan, Jordan Ahnquist and Jesse Hinson in Stoneham Theatre's "Seminar." Photo: David Costa

From the left, Liz Hayes, Christopher Tarjan, Jordan Ahnquist and Jesse Hinson in Stoneham Theatre’s “Seminar.” Photo: David Costa

STONEHAM — Writing fiction ain’t beanbag, to paraphrase the comment about politics made by Finley Peter Dunne’s fictional Mr. Dooley.
Those who have entered that world on even a limited basic usually emerge battered and bruised. Mary are scarred for life. It’s why only the best of best — the most persistent and the luckiest, as well as the most talented — who emerge from the pack and become well-known and wealthy.
That hasn’t deterred the quartet of young writers who feel they are bound for glory in Theresa Rebeck’s “Seminar,” now at the Stoneham Theatre through Sept. 29. “Seminar” has come to Stoneham fresh from a recent Broadway run, a feather in the hat for the suburban theater beginning its 14th season.
Rebeck, the creator of the TV show “Smash,” has done some other fine work that Boston theater companies have explored: the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of her “Mauritius,” for example, and there have also been recent productions of her “Bad Dates” and “The Understudy.”
In “Seminar,” four promising young writers have paid big money — $5,000 each — to hire Leonard (Christopher Tarjan), a well-known novelist who is also renowned as an editor, to evaluate their work and give them feedback over a period of 10 weeks.
The play opens in the apartment of Kate (Liz Hayes), an $800 a month rent-controlled palace on the Upper West Side of New York City. Kate has been working for six years, since she left Bennington College, on a story she hopes will be the first rung on the ladder of success.
The class also includes Daniel (Jesse Hinson), the nephew of a famous playwright from Harvard who has already gained admittance to two favored writing residencies — Yaddo and MacDowell — earning him the envy and enmity of classmates at the same time.
Izzy (Sophorl Ngin) is an attractive, sassy, sexy young woman who is not afraid to use her looks to gain any possible advantage in this cutthroat world, where everyone is essentially competing against everyone else.
Martin (Jordan Ahnquist), a financially struggling young writer who has already been turned for some of the residencies that Daniel was admitted to, still mocks Daniel for what he considers to be his self-importance and ego.
It doesn’t take long after Leonard is asked to evaluate Kate’s lifework — a piece she has been working on for six years — and trashes it, that the students realize they are in for a bumpy ride they may regret.
He later expounds on a piece written by Daniel. “It’s kind of like a whore. It’s skillful, but whorish,” he comments on Daniel’s work and advises Daniel to go to Hollywood — he’ll never be a serious writer.
He surprisingly takes to Izzy’s work — and, apparently to Izzy herself — which raises the hackles of the other students and other charges of unethical behavior.
Leonard mocks Martin for being a “pussy,” for not submitting any work to the class after watching Leonard eviscerate two of his fellow students — it is a charge that will become ironic later in the production.
All of the students have their moments — Hayes, for one, rarely gives a bad performance — but Leonard is the most magnetic, fascinating, multi-layered character. At first glance, he’s a brilliant but egotistical, condescending, impatient bully, with no redeeming values.
But Leonard has a backstory. There is an allegation of plagiarism knocking about, and speculation about why his writing career suddenly seemed to fizzle out.
After Leonard leaves for an overseas assignment, The students ultimately unite and take a stand against Leonard, and Kate comes up with a plot that she believes will discredit and embarrass him.
The playwright has provided Leonard with a glorious second-act monologue in which he describes point-by-point Martin’s future life as a writer from that moment onward — unless he accepts the help that Leonard is offering. We see a different side of the man.
Rebeck’s plot takes some other delicious turns you may or may not see coming, and “Seminar” wends its way to a satisfying and fairly upbeat ending.
Kudos for Christopher Ostrom’s well-designed set design of an upscale apartment that later dovetails into Leonard’s living quarters.
There’s some brief nudity and raw language in “Seminar,” and overall it’s a bit edgier and grittier than the theater’s usual fare. As someone who has been attending Stoneham shows since the theater opened, it’s part of an ongoing, extended period of growth and change, and perhaps it also marks a step forward for the theater and its audience.
The Stoneham Theatre production of Theresa Rebeck’s “Seminar,” through Sept. 29 at the Stoneham Theatre. Directed by Weylin Symes. Set design by Christopher Ostrom. Sound design by David Wilson Costume design by Deidre McCabe Gerrard.