If brevity is the soul of wit, "Seminar" is the height of funny.
Theresa Rebeck's Broadway hit takes us inside the snarky world of a posh writers workshop where students fork over $500 a week to be subjected to massive doses of derision with a side of cruelty. Crisply directed by Amy Glazer in its regional premiere at San Francisco Playhouse, this fast-paced comedy of bad manners zips along for 100 minutes full of quips and zingers, but is ultimately also quite insightful about the vulnerability of truth in an insincere world.
Some critics have knocked the play for a lack of substance, others have suggested it is misogynistic at its core, but both criticisms miss the point of the satire entirely.
Rebeck, best known for "Smash" on television as well as tart comedies such as "The Scene" and "Bad Dates," reveals a lot about her own life and work here. She examines the way writers are consumed by the publishing industry, the sexual politics that shut women out of the A-list, and the absurd lengths to which artists will go to pursue their voice.
In this case, four fledgling scribes line up like lambs before the slaughter in a tony Upper West Side apartment (gorgeous set design by Bill English). Meet the name-dropping wannabe Douglas (Patrick Russell), the nephew of a famous writer; the sexy schmoozer Izzy (Natalie Mitchell); the sheepish young man Martin (James Wagner); and the smart and well-heeled Kate (Lauren English), who plays host to the class in her family's elegant Manhattan manse. It's a rent-controlled nine-bedroom flat with a view of the river that costs just $800 a month, which Martin wryly describes as a "subsidy for the rich."
Pretension is an obligatory pose here, and these four like to squabble about "the exteriority" and "the interiority" of various and sundry writers' colonies and bandy about labels like "postmodernism" and "magic realism." Coddled from preschool to college, these 20-somethings are so smug it's hard to believe how quickly they shrink and quiver once their legendary teacher arrives. In these first scenes, which don't yet flow as naturally as they should, the play appears to be a parody of big trust funds gone bad.
Once a famous novelist, Leonard (a sublime Charles Shaw Robinson) now seems dedicated almost entirely to braying about his globe-trotting escapades from Chechnya to Somalia and ripping his students to shreds. Leonard also knows his flock has fragile egos, and he takes every opportunity to poke at their weaknesses. Rebeck delights in verbal displays of viciousness here.
After reading just five words, he dismisses one student's life's work as a "soul sucking waste of words," that's "relentlessly talent free." In fact he can't even be bothered to throw her pages into the trash, preferring instead to let them merely drop to the floor.
He labels another of his cub writers a "whore" and sends him packing for Hollywood, where he can get rich peddling his "detached tone of perplexed intelligence."
Robinson shows his mastery of nuance and timing as the gonzo writing guru, sliding from withering to wooing in a flash. It seems some of his protégés are more than willing to trade sexual favors for literary advancement. Others are hoping to find a chink in his armor to prove that his denunciations of their work don't matter. It hardly matters to Leonard, who is enough of a narcissist to bask in any power afforded him.
English charts Kate's path from prim to pragmatic with great tenderness. Russell and Mitchell need to push harder to show us the emotions that drive their extreme characters. Wagner is thoroughly likable as the writer so scared of failure he can't take the risk of being read. But the actor hasn't found the character's heat, the anger that motivates his first stab at standing his ground.
For her part, Glazer is an old hand at giving Rebeck's glossy comedies heft. She orchestrates the romp with an ear for the truths hidden in what people say, so that every bit of betrayal and bed-hopping feels real. By the time the play goes deeper than parody and captures some of the terror and pleasure of the writing process, we are rooting hard for one of these perpetual adolescents to get it together.
Certainly the play takes some shortcuts, like depressed women binging on potato chips and ice cream (really?), and not all of the characters are etched with the same level of subtlety. But when the teacher finally discovers one of this students has a real gift, the true love story of the play begins. "Seminar" charts the dysfunctional romance between writers and words, and it's a doozy.
By Theresa Rebeck, presented by San Francisco Playhouse
Through: June 14
Where: 450 Post St., San Francisco
Running time: 100 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $20-$100, 415-677-9596, http://sfplayhouse.org