While in New York, I also saw Close Up Space, which has not been universally loved by critics. CUS is about Paul Barrow, a senior editor at a midtown publisher. He’s devoted himself to his work to the exclusion of his daughter, Harper, who is grieving the death of her mother, and uses his red pen to edit away any uncomfortable emotion or possible human interaction. David Hyde Pierce is excellent although many would say that this character is not a huge departure for him when compared to Niles Crane from his “Frasier” days; the opening monologue, in which he eviscerates emails and letters, is pedantic, vicious, and threatening. (Also, he hates the Oxford comma, which is just wrong.) A fair amount of the rest of the play is awkward and clunky though: overacted, overwrought, and peopled by secondary characters who don’t quite mesh with what’s going on between father and daughter. Oddly, there are some great lines of dialogue, very funny stuff, mixed in with a fair amount of predictable, pedestrian dialogue. Russia as metaphor for grief is painfully overused or overdone. Probably I was supposed to feel more sympathy for Harper as abandoned child, but instead I wondered if her outlandish behavior from birth is just acting out or if her mental stability is questionable (her mother was mentally ill), which her father is unable to cope with, either while his wife was alive or after her death.
The publishing industry in CUS is a backdrop, really, mostly just an opportunity to demonstrate Barrow’s OCD-ish behavior. One of the secondary characters, played by Rosie Perez, is the company’s biggest author, a writer of women’s fiction or chick lit, and her threat to Barrow’s ruthless slashing of her page count is to take the manuscript to a competing publishing house. Another secondary character, the intern, is a Vassar undergrad who is mostly interested in getting her train fare reimbursed and her one last credit to graduate. Another is Steve, the office manager, who is a goofy slacker who is camping in the office after hours. Is this what publishing is made of?
On the other hand, Seminar (NYT review here) is less about publishing as an industry (although getting published is a goal of all the characters) and more about the writing and how talent is both used and squandered. The cast has the preppy writer who has entry into writers’ colonies based on his playwright uncle; the exotic woman whose sexuality is another tool for advancement; the frustrated idealist who might be talented but is afraid to show his work to anyone; the privileged, WASPy Jane Austen fangirl; and the jaded, literary lion instructor and author-turned-editor. The criticism of each student’s work is by turns brutal and generous; the NYT reviewer calls Rickman’s Leonard “an intellectual sadist”, which is a fair description. But even when he’s absent, the four aspiring authors are acerbic, competitive, and utterly aware that the members of their support group or class are also their biggest competition in a market that it unforgiving. Ultimately, Leonard does each student a good turn in terms of their career development, although it is not necessarily a boost into the vaunted lit fic circles any of them aspire to, although the subtext of art vs. commerce isn’t really addressed.
Jerry O’Connell’s opening monologue about interiority and exteriority is both funny and disturbing, as are his colleagues’ reaction to it, but it also says something (to me, at least) about the way that people who want to write “serious fiction” approach reality and interact with others: he comes across as pretentious and alienates the people who probably should be sympathetic to him.
The flashes of nudity (female, of course) in the play are a little problematic for me. Izzy pulling up her top and flashing her classmates demonstrates that she’s willing to use her sexuality to get ahead, I suppose, so it contributes to her characterization…but other actions later do that just as well, and it just feels excessive. Kate’s full moon of Martin serves no purpose at all; she’s already strolled out of the bedroom wearing only her lover’s shirt — what’s the point of showing him and everyone else her bum? I have no problem with nudity in general, but when it comes to theater, film, and television, I tend to look skeptically at female nudity (which seems overused and exponentially more frequent than male nudity) as a vehicle for plot advancement rather than prurience.