If you visit New York this winter, you'll find on Broadway a playwright oft-produced in L.A. (Theresa Rebeck) and a pair of Hollywood stars (Samuel L. Jackson plus Angela Bassett, a staple at the Pasadena Playhouse). Meanwhile, off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons is a new play by Jordan Harrison, whose Futura received its world premiere last year in Pasadena at Theatre @ Boston Court.
Also a novelist and a screenwriter, Rebeck may be a household name inside theater circles (her play Poor Behavior appeared at the Mark Taper Forum in September), but it's actor Alan Rickman, portraying an eviscerating guru for aspiring writers, who gives Seminar its street cred.
Recall Terrence McNally's 1995 Master Class, which featured the character of retired opera star Maria Callas excoriating student singers; Seminar is literature's variation on a similar theme. At its best, it's an earnest investigation of why writers write, grappling with fraud, the fragility of egos, the subjectivity of standards and the whorishness of ambition. It portrays an utterly rigged literary system that's bereft of lasting opportunity for anybody who doesn't graduate from one in a holy trinity of Ivy League colleges. And it mercifully disengages that standard from what it means to be a writer — an entirely private endeavor.
Its primary virtue is technical, as it sets up student archetypes — including the frustrated woman (Lily Rabe in a powerhouse performance), the bitter mouse (Hamish Linklater at his best), the ambitious pedant (Jerry O'Connell) — and has them mate in unexpected combinations, under Sam Gold's glove-tight staging.
It nonetheless suffers from the plight of plays about writers: that the “greatness” it speaks of can never be demonstrated from the stage, only presumed.
Like his Futura, which premiered in Pasadena last year, playwright Jordan Harrison's fascination with the effects of technology carries over into Maple and Vine, now off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons. Taking its cue from The Truman Show, Maple and Vine imagines a regulated colony in the Midwest that replicates 1955, as a refuge for urbanites overwhelmed by the personal and professional complexities of 21st-century multitasking. Going back to the past means old-style bigotry, and Harrison dwells on homophobia.
The play's intriguing, fantastical construct soon starts to break down, partly from the annoying number of set changes under Anne Kauffman's direction, with characters settling into life choices that are as ambiguous as they are arbitrary.
Katori Hall's new play, The Mountaintop, directed by Kenny Leon, features Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett as, respectively, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a maid in a Memphis motel room on the stormy eve of his assassination. It treats a human god in the most human way — smelly feet, bad breath, an inclination to womanize. Jackson's modulated performance shows flickers of the orator through world-weariness. With its allusions to divinity and heaven, joined to a moving sliver of history, the play's elegance is undermined by Bassett's mugging caricature, as though she dropped in from an episode of The Jeffersons. Still, what a delight that a work by a female black playwright is doing so well on the Great White Way. Both actors live here. Wait for it in L.A. —Steven Leigh Morris
SEMINAR | By THERESA REBECK | Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St., New York | Through Dec. 18 | telecharge.com
MAPLE AND VINE | By JORDAN HARRISON | Playwrights Horizons, 416 W. 42nd St., New York | Through Dec. 23 | playwrightshorizons.org
THE MOUNTAINTOP | By KATORI HALL | Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 W. 45th St., New York | Through Jan. 22 | telecharge.com