Review: Seminar (Mirvish)


Seminar, on stage in Toronto, confronts the “sad patriarchal truth of the literary sphere”

In Seminar, currently onstage at the Panasonic Theatre and produced by Mirvish, four young writers have put together an enormous amount of money to hire a famous author to critique their work. What they don’t expect is that the criticism will encompass their own characters, and also reveal the weaknesses of their would-be mentor.

The fiction seminar is held in the sumptuous upper west side NYC apartment of Kate (Andrea Houssin), born into money and labouring on the same short story for the past six years. Three other twenty-somethings have helped fund the private workshop: Martin (Nathan Howe), Kate’s close friend from high school who has little to no income; Douglas (Ryan James Miller), a rich and pretentious youth with a well-connected uncle; and Izzy (Grace Lynn Kung), a nubile young woman who plans to become famous via overt sexuality both in her work and life.

The instructor, Leonard (Tom McCamus) is arrogant, purposefully offensive, and hasn’t published a novel in at least a decade. He’s maintaining a living by copy-editing, and his reputation by writing journalistic essays on war-torn countries. He is a proponent of “masculine literature”, often going on tangents about his adventures highlighting his own toughness, advising his students to “write like a man”, and calling them “pussies”( Martin) or “weenies” (Kate).

I found the show quite funny, often painfully so, as a writer of fiction myself. The Leonard character recalls Hemingway, of course, but also Philip Roth and his ilk, men who write about writing, academia and its failings, traditional masculinity, and liaisons with much younger women. This sort of author, while not without merit, dominates the field.

The phrase “not without merit” recalls the play itself, wherein Leonard continually describes Douglas as a “not untalented writer” in cruel contexts. Sexual dynamics play out against literary ones, as both Leonard and Douglas pursue Izzy, who Martin is infatuated with, while Leonard goes for the kill — in terms of both ego-destruction and seduction — while giving feedback on their short stories.

The direction and acting are tight, each character and relationship entirely believable if not terribly nuanced. The staging is carefully considered; I particularly enjoyed how the seating arrangement at the beginning of each scene portended the coming conflict.

Leonard decides whether to continue with a story based on the first page, or even first sentence. While everyone in the literary community would agree that the first sentence and page are crucial, it would behoove an instructor being paid many thousands of dollars to read on in order to help the fledgling writers with their work. I thought this small aspect was wonderfully manifested in the set which, while lovely as Kate’s fancy apartment for most of the play, revealed a new depth for the final scene.

My only issue with the play, which is minor, is that it didn’t counter Leonard by positing a literature that could be both serious and feminine. In the end, masculine literature succeeds and women write only titillation or anonymously support men. This surprised me, coming from a female playwright. But perhaps in Seminar Theresa Rebeck is reflecting on her own experience, and the sad patriarchal truth of the literary sphere.


Photo of Tom McCamus and Grace Lynn Kung by Dylan Hewlett