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Strong Performances Make the St. Louis Actors' Studio's Seminar Worth Attending

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The writers' group meets in a lovely Upper West Side apartment; the tasteful furniture and the quartet of Robert Longo drawings from his Men in the Cities series tell you that much. The only inharmonious element is a six-pack of Bud Select that sits in the corner.

The four members — two female, two male — are here to workshop stories under the tutelage of the legendary editor Leonard, who can make your career or snuff it out before it even begins.

There's Douglas, a budding Jonathan Franzen in a bow tie and black frame glasses; Kate, the Bennington University grad who loves Jane Austen a little too fervently; Izzy, blonde and flirtatious and always texting when she isn't talking; and Martin, whose backward Mets ballcap and love of Kerouac marks him as the guy who brought that incongruous six-pack to this first meeting.

And then there's Leonard, the swaggering raconteur who swears and rants and loves to talk about Rwanda and Somalia, and all the nihilism he soaked up while there. He's digressive, abrasive and combative — he'd call Norman Mailer a pussy to his face and outdrink Chuck Bukowski.

Theresa Rebeck's Seminar follows the group through their ten-week course with Leonard. Each paid $5,000 to be advised (and abused) by this brilliant wordsmith, and each one of the quartet undergoes a painful awakening that may not be what they signed up for, but is perhaps what they wanted. The current St. Louis Actors' Studio production of the play is interesting both for its performances and for Elizabeth Helman's direction.

Performances first: John Pierson commands attention as Leonard. As written, he's the most immediately compelling of the characters — antagonists often are — but Pierson plays him with a virile charm that's hard to resist. He has a series of sharp-toothed smiles he uses on his students that range from open and friendly to condescending hostility. He uses the latter most often on Kate (Taylor Pietz), who calls him out on his bullshit macho posturing until Leonard eviscerates her story as worthless based solely on the first five words. The feminist in the group, she's cowed by his tough-guy dismissal and sulks on the couch for most classes after that.

Nathan Bush has a nervous energy as the eager-to-please Douglas, who has a famous writer for an uncle and annoying tendency to mispronounce words in the middle of his many flowery and overwrought speeches. Most of them are directed at Izzy (Alicia Smith), who plays the ingenue with a giggling lilt in her voice and a host of seductive poses — there isn't a piece of furniture in the room she doesn't drape herself across.

Martin (Jason Contini) stands alone as the aesthete. His writing is so precious he won't share it with anyone, not even the group. He's as needy and non-confrontational as Leonard is reckless and brash. Contini sinks into the corner of the sofa in many scenes, sneering at his peers and ducking any eye contact with Leonard — a true coward.

Observant audience members may find themselves with nagging questions as the play progresses, such as, "Is this really how Theresa Rebeck sees women — either as seductresses or overly sensitive, embittered feminists?" "Does she really think men are the Promethean heroes who steal fire from the gods and put it on the page for us unworthy mortals to misinterpret?" "Why do alcohol and meaningful prose go hand-in-hand?"

Helman marshals her forces well, but the first act feels a little unfocused as we pop in on each group meeting to see who Leonard can destroy this week. The second act, however, redeems all.

Helman gets — completely, entirely — what Rebeck is laying down here. Seminar, which made its Broadway debut in 2011, is a sly parody of the male author archetypes. Read her note in the program about how female playwrights who complain about representation in the theater are treated, and then really look at Leonard, and to a lesser extent, Martin. Sure, they're suffering and brawling and drinking their way to an early grave and lasting fame as geniuses — but they are entirely creations of a woman playwright who is putting these ridiculous words in their mouths. It is a game. One she is winning.

The final twenty minutes of Seminar are gripping theater, easily worth the price of admission, as Martin and Leonard finally get it all out in the open. "Boys, boys, boys — you just never get enough of yourselves, do you?" Kate asks Martin late in the game. Here they are, Punch and Punch, swinging their slapsticks willy-nilly at each other while Rebeck (and Helman) pulls the strings. Raise a glass to women who fight dirty.

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