Review: Seminar (Spartan Theatre)

| May 20, 2017

  Robert Koon in Seminar by Theresa Rebeck, Spartan Theatre          



Written by Theresa Rebeck 
at The Frontier, 1106 W. Thorndale (map)
thru June 4  |  tix: $25  |  more info
Check for half-price tickets   


‘Seminar’ could use some workshopping of its own


Robert Koon, Nick Druzbanski, Courtney Stennett, Sean Kelly and Stephanie Shum in Seminar, Spartan Theatre

Spartan Theatre Company presents

Review by Lauren Whalen

Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar feels like a wannabe literary adaptation of “The Paper Chase,” a popular novel that became a successful film and an even more successful television series. Instead of the law students of “The Paper Chase,” the protagonists of Seminar are wannabe novelists, living in New York without much direction, aspiring to be the next sensation in what some regard a dying art form. However, while all three iterations of “The Paper Chase” made compelling drama out of what can be a very mundane three years of school, Seminar makes a mockery of writers, painting them with broad stereotypical strokes and thrusting problematic language and huge discrepancies into a writing workshop setting. Seminar could have used some workshopping of its own, accompanied by multiple rewrites and a heavy editorial hand.

Seminar at Spartan Theatre ChicagoSeminar is set almost entirely in the Upper West Side apartment of Kate (Courtney Stennett), a whiny trust fund baby who doesn’t appear to have a job or any real purpose except for the short story she’s been writing for six years. Kate and four of her friends have paid an exorbitant amount of money for the tutelage of Leonard (Robert Koon), a fallen-from-grace novelist-turned-editor who shows up weekly to read one paragraph of someone’s work and shred it to ribbons. Meanwhile, Kate’s friend and former high school classmate Martin (Sean Kelly), who has sacrificed rent money to be part of the writing workshop, refuses to show Leonard his writing. Libertine Izzy (Stephanie Shum) toys with both Leonard and Martin’s affections, and Douglas (Nick Druzbanski), who has familial ties to the literary community and has had some success, earns everyone else’s wrath for wearing ascots and being pretentious.

If it doesn’t sound like anything in Seminar is resolved or even particularly interesting, then I have done my job as a writer. It seems that Rebeck hasn’t been to a fiction-writing workshop at all, because the structure of Leonard’s “seminars” (and if we’re looking at semantics, a seminar is different from a workshop) rings completely false. Rather than the students and instructor receiving the work ahead of time, so they can prepare valuable and constructive critiques, Leonard throws paper around, reads five words and screams misogynistic language at whomever is on deck. I understand that valuable and constructive critiques don’t make for good drama, but neither does the completely tired trope of “alcoholic, verbally abusive, disgusting old white man who’s actually a genius and whose abuse ends up being incredibly helpful to his victims.”

With the exception of Douglas, who despite his ascot-sporting affect has actually been productive (by which I mean, he writes rather than constantly whines), none of the characters have any real personality or even any human characteristics. No one appears to have a job, a relationship, even a hobby that doesn’t involve alcohol. And while writers do indeed experience angst, it’s very different from actor-angst, which is what Rebeck has written into her very sloppy script, the ending of which is both completely out of character and utterly cliché.

One of Seminar’s few redeeming features is Joe Palermo’s sound design, which eases the awkward transitions with 2CELLOS’ renditions of pop songs. Additionally, Druzbanski seems to be the only actor in on the joke (his Douglas is a lot of fun) and while the character is reprehensible and lazily written, Koon’s Leonard pops off one-xvliners like a pro. Unfortunately, the production of Seminar doesn’t have a chance of rising above one of the worst scripts I’ve seen presented in a long while. It is possible to make writer characters interesting. Rebeck just hasn’t figured out how.

Rating: ★½

Seminar continues through June 4th at The Frontier, 1106 W. Thorndale (map), with performances Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays 3pm & 7:30pm, Sundays 3pm.  Tickets are $25 (students and industry: $10), and are available online through their website (check for half-price tickets at More information at time: play length, includes an intermission) 

Seminar at Spartan Theatre, Chicago

Photos by Amanda de la Guardia of Citadel Photography




Robert Koon (Leonard), Nick Druzbanski (Douglas), Courtney Stennett (Kate), Sean Kelly (Martin), Stephanie Shum (Izzy)

behind the scenes

Daniel Sappington (director), Joe Burke (lighting design), Joe Palermo (sound design), Amy Chmielewski (costume design), Patrick Belics (artistic director), Andy Monson (associate artistic director), Cody Nicoletti (managing director), Sarah Jordan (marketing director), Jeff Newman (production manager), Tim Bickel (audio-video engineer), Robert Alan (production associate), Joseph Galizia (artistic associate), Amanda de la Guardia (photos)


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Category: 2017 Reviews, Lauren Whalen, Spartan Theatre, The Frontier

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