Chicago Theater Review: SEMINAR (Haven Theatre Company at Theater Wit)

Post image for Chicago Theater Review: SEMINAR (Haven Theatre Company at Theater Wit)

by Lawrence Bommer on March 4, 2014

in Theater-Chicago


Seminar, Theresa Rebeck’s utterly engaging one-act, is all about the wonders and terrors of writing. Both in the author’s dazzling dialogue and the fascinating issues she confronts–authorial authenticity and the corruption of ambition on art–these 105 minutes seethe and surge. A lucky audience reaps a harvest of biting psychology, whiplash wit, sexual politics, cunning detail and, after so much fighting, Mary Williamson (Kate) and Tom Hickey (Leonard) in Haven Theatre Company’s production of SEMINAR at Theater Wit.a hopeful, maybe redemptive, finale. Dynamically staged by Marti Lyons for Haven Theatre, this is a true find and is a major hit at Theater Wit.

The title is a year-long writers’ workshop where four aspiring young fiction scribblers have paid $5,000 each to study with Leonard (Tom Hickey), a notorious-to-famous novelist/editor with impeccable connections if not credentials (maybe this Leonard can get the writers into YADO or The New Yorker.) Tired of the supposedly irrelevant, escapist lies that short-story writers peddle as truths, Leonard is now immersed in non-fiction–exposés of real life crises: In order to reveal the heartbreak of an ungoverned loony bin, he thinks nothing of dodging bullets in Somalia.

Mary Williamson (Kate) and Keith Neagle (Martin) in Haven Theatre Company’s production of SEMINAR at Theater Wit.The hostess of this sprawling, rent-controlled Upper West Side townhouse, Bennington alumna Kate (Mary Williamson) is the first victim of Leonard’s caustic to bitchy criticism: This purportedly misogynistic monster praises Kerouac and mocks Kate’s too-feminine story about a Jane Austen admirer—a tale that Kate has been writing for a full six years! It’s enough to drive her to binge-eating comfort food.

Damning with faint praise, the toxically sarcastic, tough-loving Leonard puts down Douglas (Carl Lindberg), a name-dropping preppy with a famous name who mires his mind in pompous pronouncements about “interiority” and “exteriority.” An equal opportunity offender, Leonard belittles, then beds erotic gold digger Izzy (Astra Asdou). Worst behavior from nasty Leonard? Intimidating Martin (Keith Neagle)–a financially challenged  man from Queens who is too terrified to show him any writing–by calling him a “pussy.” Yet all along Martin seems to be the prodigal disciple, possessed with a desire to deliver “messages from the god.”

It would take a flow chart to map the transactions that transpire in the blackout scenes depicting both the tempestuous class sessions and the mating and housing games played in Kate’s five-bedroom digs. With surgical precision (and as much blood-letting), Rebeck anatomizes petty jealousies, self-serving strategies, Keith Neagle (Martin) and Tom Hickey (Leonard) in Haven Theatre Company’s production of SEMINAR at Theater Wit.backstabbing, Achilles-heel fighting, and, occasionally, an actual meeting of minds where the call of make-believe drowns out the cult of personality.

The script also dabbles in the question of plagiarism and other absorbing issues: Can you ever really judge a work by who the writer is? (Literally, the question is “what’s in a name?”)  Is it unethical to pass off a “fictitious” memoir as an actual autobiography? Can fraud make you famous? Are some subjects intrinsically more authentic than others? Can an author only find his true voice by the process of elimination?

The final scene, a complete contrast to Kate’s tony showroom apartment, is a second triumph for set designer Joanne Iwanicka: We’re now in Leonard’s scruffy but exotically decorated rooms, where we finally get beyond back stories: We discover engrossing new aspects of Kate, Leonard, and Martin. More must not be said.

Carl Lindberg (Douglas) and Tom Hickey (Leonard), (back L to R) Atra Asdou (Izzy) and Keith Neagle (Martin) in Haven Theatre Company’s production of SEMINAR at Theater Wit.Apart from the razor-sharp, keenly-felt writing, Haven’s triumph is a supple showcase of the driven acting that honors complicated characters. It’s a rich brew: Asdou’s opportunistic flirting as available Izzy; Lindberg’s smiling plasticity as entitled Douglas; Williamson’s ever-boiling resentments as the disrespected Kate; and Neagle’s wary defensiveness as elusive Martin. Then there’s the ostensible bully boy Leonard: Hickey plays this damaged dreamer with contagious aplomb, his almost criminal timing barely conceals the kind of massive vulnerability that every good writer hides at the peril of losing it altogether.

(The one phony happening here–perhaps necessitated by time constraints–is the touted ability of Leonard or anyone else to instantly measure the worth of a work within 20 seconds of stage reading. We know better…)

Atra Asdou, Carl Lindberg and Mary Williamson in Haven Theatre Company’s production of SEMINAR at Theater Wit.

photos by Dean LaPrairie

Haven Theatre Company
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
scheduled to end on April 13, 2014
for tickets, call 773.975.8150 or visit
for more info, visit

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit

Leave a Comment