PlayMakers Repertory Company
150 Country Club Road, Chapel Hill
Through Nov. 1

The season of theatrical tough love continues. After seeing SEMINAR at PlayMakers Repertory Company, I’m tempted to either redouble my efforts as a critic or give them up entirely.

Playwright Theresa Rebeck’s knowing drama from 2011 reveals a series of stark, brutal truths about art, writing and criticism in the context of a workshop for four aspiring fiction writers in New York City. They’re so aspiring that they’ve each ponied up $5,000 for the titular seminar, comprising 12 group sessions with Leonard, a famed editor and journalist. Their classes fall between Leonard’s trips to war zones in the Middle East and Eastern Europethe antithesis of the “irrelevant dream state” in which he says his students are hibernating at their first meeting.

Leonard has a point. His quartet has picked up some very bad artistic habits by the time we meet. Left to their own devices, they’ve been attempting to name-drop, kvetch or sleep around to earn their imagined future sinecuresthat, or preemptively piss off the gatekeepers so their verdicts can be disregarded rather than reckoned with.

But then, Leonard’s pretty problematic as well: impatient and self-aggrandizing, with more than a hint of machismo. An Edward Albee character once called a combination of cruelty and kindness “the teaching emotion,” and the mix in Leonard’s case seems to heavily favor the former.

He demolishes one writer’s story when its first sentence doesn’t make him want to read further. He dismisses the story’s narrator (and perhaps its author) as an “overeducated, completely inexperienced, sexually inadequate girl who has rich parents who give her everything and who has nothing to say,” before concluding, “I don’t give a shit about that person.”

But after the cohort’s predictable rush to defend the author has subsided, one of them privately confirms the editor’s misgivings. Throughout the evening, Leonard’s brusque assessments, rhetoric and behaviors make us question his critical eye, biases and ethics. And that is entirely appropriate.

Arts teachers do turn cannibal from time to time. I’ve seen the “tear them down to build them up” model accomplish the former more often than the latter. But if we criticize Leonard’s heavy hand, we risk forgetting the stakes. If you give your creative work to a world-class editor, you’re signaling that you’re ready for the pros. As Leonard reminds them all, no matter what he says about their work, “the fucking critics will say worse.” After popping another writer’s too self-assured self-image, Leonard replies, “You asked for the truth. That’s the truth I have.”

How masterful is Ray Dooley’s performance under guest Michael Dove’s direction? In one scene we sit, spellbound, as his character silently reads a manuscript. The suspense intensifies over the 30 or so seconds before his first reaction. Four supporting actors from UNC’s Professional Actor Training Program (which Dooley leads)Carey Cox, Myles Bullock, Allison Altman and Schuyler Scott Mastainkeep pace with Dooley: no small feat, given the terrain.

The bitterness in Leonard’s voice is clear when he tells his charges that becoming an editor “turned [me] into a servant.” But that admission misstates the power dynamic. Editors and writers have an enigmatic relationship; it’s a service, but one where the customer is ultimately not the boss. Instead, editors serve their chosen genre or art form, pursuing the best of what it is and what it may become. When a writer doesn’t let them do that, the two usually part wayswhich, for the most part, happens here.

Rebeck’s case-in-point students and her deeply insightful, deeply flawed instructor indicate that she has considerable first-hand knowledge of her subject. The crisp portraiture on page and stage veers into the implausible on occasion, but usually conveys razor-sharp lessons, in a compelling master class for writers, editors and anyone interested in the craft. Highly recommended.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Teacher’s threat”