The Phillips-Martinez boys have done it again. Lance, the artistic director of Desert Theatreworks, and Ron, its executive director, have hammered out a hit with Seminar, the play that opens the company’s new season at the Arthur Newman Theatre in Palm Desert’s Joslyn Center.
How did they do it?
Well, first, they chose a wonderfully written script, created by Theresa Rebeck, a Pulitzer Prize finalist. She created Smash on TV, if that helps with the bona fides, but her credentials fill up a whole page of the program. The lady holds a Brandeis doctorate, do you mind. This two-act comedy deals with a private writing class given to four New York wannabes who have each forked over $5,000 for the privilege of being critiqued by an actual working writer for 10 weekly sessions.
Second, the casting is superb. More on this later, when we discuss the actors.
Third, the support system—along with the stage managing of Kathy Taylor-Smith, with sound and lights assistance from Jeremy Goodlander, Stephen McMillen and Alex Updyke—is solid and secure. The importance of this can’t be overlooked. Without lights and mics and sound cues being perfect, nobody can do their job. As for the setting, most of the show takes place in one Manhattan apartment, with the last scene in a different apartment, and you’ll be delighted by the scenery change (and even more in the final bows).
Fourth, Lance Phillips-Martinez’s directing is beautiful. What he did to create such excellent timing in the cast, we can only speculate. But it’s the clever blackouts that create the variations in pace, to great effect. Lance Phillips-Martinez’ hard work with the actors makes this show worth seeing.
So let’s talk about the acting. Recently, in James Franco’s autobiography, he memorably said, “Everyone can act. Not everyone can act well.” And ain’t that the truth? Here, fortunately, they act well. Brittney De Leon-Reyes, playing Izzy, gives new meaning to curves. Luscious and raven-haired, she prowls the stage like a panther wearing 4-inch heels. Flashing eyes, glowing olive skin and a lazy but confident smile give her an uber-sexy air. Va-va-voom! As an actress, she has the ability to focus completely, making her very watchable.
Mari Kerber plays Kate. And if Brittney is Rose Red, then Mari is Rose White. They are polar opposites, yet both are totally believable. Kerber brings to the show a cascade of sleek golden hair, a lovely face (those cheekbones!) and an attitude of calm acceptance about her WASP character’s wealthy and privileged background, making Kate sensitive, generous and thoughtful. She radiates being well-bred and well-read, yet she struggles to find her own voice as a writer.
Gabriel Lawrence is Martin, our mystery-man. Though at first he seems stereotypical (the Latino bad boy/poet from the streets), we soon begin to wonder about what lies beneath his surface. His multi-layered performance keeps us guessing throughout the play, and he surprises us more than once. DTW imported Lawrence back here from L.A. for this role, and he shrewdly fleshes out this unusual character.
The role of Douglas is performed by Tanner Lieser. He dominates the opening scene and can take credit for the chortles that start early in the show. He captures the outrageous and sometimes-pretentious qualities commonly associated with New York intellectuals, although none of the actors use any “N’Yawk” accents at all. Lieser plays the high-strung and hypersensitive Douglas as flamboyant, affected and a big talker happy only when he’s the center of attention.
Then there’s Leonard, the teacher, towering above the others in physical height and with experience in the glorious world of writing to which the students aspire—perfectly played by Luke Rainey. He blathers and blusters, but brilliantly, dumbfounding both his students and the audience. His masterful monologues leave us awestruck, as he tackles such subjects as: Who gets published? Why? What does one have to do to get published? One minute, Leonard is an addled blowhard; the next, he snaps out penetrating insights and revelations. Not an easy task for an actor less talented than this one.
Mixed all together, the group gives us a rare feeling of spontaneity. We believe them. We become the proverbial fly on the wall, listening and watching, because it seems to be real. This is why people go to the theater: They hope to be taken out of their own skins for a while, and live someone else’s life for just a couple of hours. The extraordinary casting in Seminar at Desert Theatreworks combines with the amazing script to make this happen.
We do need to slap a language warning on the production: Do not take the kids, unless you don’t mind that they’ll leave the theater cussing like stevedores (or newspaper editors?). However, with these characters, it serves to make them more believable and emphatic, and it’s not offensive.
So what can we criticize about this production? The play is listed as “contemporary,” and kids I see nowadays appear constantly wired into their cell phones, blogs, texting, selfies—not one of which appeared in this play! Which is perhaps why we enjoyed it! What a pleasure to see something of people other than the tops of their heads as they bend over their electronic devices! Is this an alternate and tolerable parallel universe?
Go see Seminar, and let me know if you figure it out.
Desert Theatreworks’ Seminar is performed at 7 p.m., Friday; and 2 and 7 p.m., Saturday, through Saturday, Sept. 13, at the Joslyn Center’s Arthur Newman Theatre, 73-750 Catalina Way, Palm Desert. Tickets are $23 to $25. For tickets or more information, call 760-980-1455, or visit www.dtworks.org.