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Theater and TV Review: Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar (Broadway) and Smash (NBC)

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Theresa Rebeck has terrific time-management skills. She is the creator and show-runner of Smash, the highly touted new TV series about the making of a (fictitious) Broadway musical. In the five months it’s been in production, Rebeck has found time to premiere a (real) Broadway comedy, Seminar starring Alan Rickman, and two other new plays in prominent regional theaters, Poor Behavior and Dead Accounts. Each of them, like most of her twenty-five or so other projects over the past two decades, has its merits but her career is most admirable in the aggregate. Steady and reliable, Theresa Rebeck gives professionalism a good name.

Megan Hilty in Smash

Her Smash pilot script works, appropriately, like the effective book to a Broadway musical. It sets up the milieu and wide swath of characters with economy and precision. It builds adroitly to the musical numbers and – the true showstoppers in TV – the commercials. On the downside, Rebeck treats the theater world with the same hazy focus as the musical’s creators approach their subject, Marilyn Monroe.

Cliches start accruing from the first shot. The fresh-faced ingenue from Iowa opens the pilot singing “Over the Rainbow.” The louche director-choreographer Derek invites her to his loft for a late night “audition,” and she’s surprised when he asks her to show him “everything she’s got.” There’s much talk about how we’re all just dreamers, but sometimes our dreams don’t mix with reality. Monroe is referred to twice as “fresh and innocent.” Debra Messing as the lyricist calls her a saint. All this sweetness and light is not found in the teleplay’s original draft and comes across as the type of pandering found in Broadway shows aimed at the tourist market. Eighty years ago, 42nd St. had more grit.

Whether a viewer’s taste runs towards Sondheim or away from any musical, the talent behind and in front of the cameras provides ample pleasures. One shorthand moment of movement in which Messing and Tony-nominee Christian Borle as her writing partner cross their legs in tandem limns a long-standing relationship. Each episode features at least one original song by Hairspray‘s Tony-winning team, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. So far they’re good and well-handled. In contrast to Glee, they’re grounded in reality – cutting a demo, presenting a workshop, prepping for an audition – and flow sinuously into visual fantasy with much less self-consciousness than the producers’ own movie musical, Chicago.

The show’s biggest flaw is a dearth of captivating characters. Angelica Huston makes the most vivid impression as the producer reeling from a contentious divorce. The initial point of narrative focus is the casting of Marilyn, but neither top candidate is all that exciting. American Idol runner-up Katherine McPhee makes a fetching ingenue with a pretty voice, face, and demeanor that have nothing to do with Monroe.

Director Michael Mayer, who like Rebeck has done the lion’s share of his work in the theater, marshals sharp scenes in the pilot but, also like Rebeck, poops out in the second episode. The strongest shot, equal parts cinematic and theatrical, occurs when McPhee’s Karen retreats to the director’s bathroom after his come-on. Terrified, she stares at her tearful image in the mirror and in the second or two it takes to pan to her face, she’s found some courage and a plan. Moments like this offer hope that the show will start throbbing with the invigorating energy found in most Rebeck plays, including her new boulevard comedy at the Golden Theatre on Broadway.

Alan Rickman in Seminar (Jeremy Daniel)

The captivatingly slick Seminar is textbook Rebeck: sharp humor, trenchant ideas, and jolting plot twists that make the time fly by without quite making an indelible mark in the heart, mind, or memory. Like Smash, it presents a clique of competitive New York sophisticates bound by their artistic ambitions – in this case, a writing group led by Leonard, a hyper-critical novelist-editor played by the unmatched Alan Rickman.

Just as Smash fudges the details of how shows are created (who exactly is writing that musical’s book?), the play futzes around with how most fiction is written and evaluated. Leonard has been paid $5,000 a person to critique their work. He does so with a speed verging on the telepathic. Throughout the play, he picks up a manuscript, reads the first few lines, sometimes even less, and then pronounces his judgment. At first, I thought the class was How to Write an Opening Paragraph. Even more unbelievably, Lily Rabe’s rich Kate has spent years worrying over an autobiographical short story, then in a week writes voluminous pages convincingly describing a POV completely alien to her cloistered experience.

All the roles here, and in most Rebeck plays, have more snap than any in Smash. Director Sam Gold is a young master at creating crackerjack acting ensembles. Each of the five seems capable of sitting behind a desk for hours to write decent prose yet radiate palpable physical charisma. Three make impressive Broadway debuts. Jerry O’Connell presents another of his exuberantly superficial comers familiar from his roles in TV and films, yet reveals glimmers of talent and discipline. Hettienne Park, who nonchalantly bares her breasts minutes into the show, manages to give her pragmatic Izzy some mystery. Hamish Linklater, who’s carved a niche as a comic underachiever with a stream of off-Broadway, film, and TV credits, expands his brand by brandishing a more pointed sexuality and soulfulness than his norm. He declines the script’s invitation to go even farther, which allows the production to lose momentum around the one-hour mark.

It falls to Alan Rickman to raise the stakes. For most of the play, he uses his cello of a voice like a virtuoso, generating a concerto of variations on the theme of blunt-force criticism. His hauteur gives way in a final scene that brings surprising depth to the performance, script, and even David Zinn’s set, with a impassioned lesson on the value and artistry of true support. If the theme were threaded throughout, the play would resonate more with a wider audience.

Rickman appears in Seminar until April 1. Two days later, Jeff Goldblum, who has appeared on stage periodically since his Broadway musical debut 40 years ago in Two Gentlemen of Verona, takes over. Even if Goldblum’s distinctive approach succeeds in banishing his predecessor’s spirit from the Golden Theatre, Rickman has clearly made a far-reaching impression on Rebeck. In another of her new plays, Poor Behavior, the British hero-villain-provocateur seems fashioned from the Rickman mold. She may even have heard his voice when developing Smash‘s director-on-the-make Derek.

Rebeck herself has a shot at making a lasting impression. The cross-pollination across media has helped her develop a signature style. As her TV experience has increased, so has her plays’ unusual reliance on plot. Her theatrical experience can be felt in her teleplays’ uncommonly sharp dialogue. Singular amongst her peers, Theresa Rebeck is fashioning a career that can be envisioned as a high quality, long-running series. One episode may pop more than others, but her laudable consistency – her enduring craft, productivity, and intelligence – deserves a loyal audience.

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