The first thing you hear at the start of the Los Angeles production of Seminar, the undemanding literary satire by Theresa Rebeck that debuted on Broadway last fall (EW’s original review), is star Jeff Goldblum tentatively telling the audience to shut off their cell phones and note the emergency exits. The audience can’t help but chuckle at Goldblum’s trademark halting cadences; they are so unmistakable that by this point in the actor’s five-decade career, he risks edging into self-parody.
Thankfully, for the following 100 minutes at the Ahmanson Theatre (and eight times a week through Nov. 18), he doesn’t. In fact, Goldblum proves especially well-suited to the role of Leonard, the egomaniacal teacher of a private workshop for aspiring writers who’ve shelled out $5,000 each for the pleasure of having their work eviscerated by this faded literary rock star. Goldblum always gives the impression that Leonard is working out his withering barbs in his head as he’s saying them, which softens the blow just enough to keep the audience laughing instead of recoiling at his cruelty.
”Don’t defend yourself,” Leonard barks at Kate (Aya Cash), the rich, exasperated feminist whose enviously posh apartment plays home to the workshop. ”If you defend yourself, you’re…not listening.” Leonard takes relish in dismissing the dirt-poor Martin (Greg Keller) — who exalts the purity of art so much that he refuses to show anyone his writing. Leonard regards Douglas (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe), a pretentious fop with a well-connected uncle and the attention of The New Yorker, as nothing more than a ”whore” destined for Hollywood. (This denunciation drew knowing chortles from the Angeleno audience, some of whom could easily have worked with Rebeck on Smash, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, or NYPD Blue.) Only the sexually forward Izzy (Jennifer Ikeda) impresses Leonard with her page and a half of rough material, so much so that he has no problem sleeping with her.
None of the characters have any significant shadings beyond their sitcom-ready stereotypes, and Rebeck and director Sam Gold keep things moving so briskly that several scenes end just as they’re getting interesting. Think a supersize episode of Frasier by way of House — with only a whiff of the monied wit of Yasmina Reza. But the show is never less than amusing. The laugh lines pop up reliably and the ensemble maintains a firm command of their roles and our attention. (The stretches when a character is reading another’s work allow the audience to take in David Zinn’s exquisitely appointed sets; it’s New York real estate porn for theater geeks.) The third act includes a few mild reversals that prick at the tension between authenticity and ambition in artistic endeavors, as Leonard reveals himself to be a twinge more complicated than he’d let on. I just wish that Goldblum had been given more than an opportunity to finely calibrate his unique rhythms at the service of erudite abuse. B?
(Tickets: CenterTheatreGroup.org, or 213-972-4400)