by David Templeton
Two entertainingly hard-punching comedies by Theresa Rebeck are hitting the North Bay within a week (and a 30-minute drive) of each other. From the number-crunching family members of Dead Accounts, beginning Friday and running through December 6 at the College of Marin (COM), to the mud-slinging wordsmiths of Seminar, running through November 28 at Santa Rosa’s Wells Fargo Center for the Arts, the desperate, big-dreaming residents of Theresa Rebeck’s gorgeously detailed universe have one thing in common—they rarely get what they want the way they want it.
Rebeck’s audiences, on the other hand, always walk away with more than they bargained for.
In COM’s Dead Accounts, directed by Adrian Elfenbaum, a broken-hearted, white-collar criminal seeks sanctuary at his parents’ house, with millions of stolen dollars in tow, and his greedy, soon-to-be-ex-wife in pursuit. The result, according to director Elfenbaum, is a series of hilarious situations and brilliant comic wordplay—and a touch of something deeper.
“While the play is billed as a comedy,” Elfenbaum says, “the dramatic scenes are surprisingly rich with nuance and complexity. In addition, there is a sense that we know these inconsistent people—that they are, in fact, us.”
“Each character is noble yet flawed,” he says. “For actors, it’s a wonderful treat to explore the wide variety of these characters’ traits, through both comedy and drama in the same show.”
As a director, Elfenbaum says that he appreciates the way Theresa Rebeck doesn’t tie her plays up in a nice neat bow at the end.
“Perhaps it’s a spoiler,” he says, “but at the end of Dead Accounts we’re left without a clear resolution of the protagonist’s journey. We’re given a peek at the direction he might choose, but we don’t get to see him completely resolve his conflict.”
The point is, in Theresa Rebeck’s world, a nice clean resolution is rarely on the table. Which brings us to Seminar, which opened last weekend.
“Don’t defend yourself,” intones Leonard (Ron Severdia), an esteemed author-turned-teacher-for-hire. “If you’re defending yourself,” he tells a group of young writers he is in the middle of eviscerating, “you’re not listening.”
In this wickedly witty and wonderful, but (occasionally) infuriating comedy-drama—presented by Left Edge Theatre, Severdia plays Leonard with a mix of weary resignation, grinning antagonism and vicious, sociopathic bloodlust. Directed by Argo Thompson with a strong ear for the rapidly shifting rhythms of intellectual debate and literary doublespeak—though with a tendency to have his entire cast perform out to the audience instead of to each other—Seminar is the story of four would-be writers who pay a local legend $5,000 apiece to give a private class, “critiquing” their writing, and everything else about them, over the course of 10 soul-shattering weeks.
Rose Roberts, as the Jane Austen-loving Kate (who rents the New York apartment where the classes take place), is at the top of her game, and her variously talented classmates Martin (Jacob de Heer), Douglas (Devon McConnell) and Izzy (Veronica Valencia) give strong, appealing performances in a play in which every character is required to be torn apart, before learning the fine art of tearing apart others. As Leonard gleefully pronounces early in the show, “Writers, in their natural state, are as civilized as feral cats.”
This entertaining exploration of artistic egos under pressure is a bit overcooked at times, but on the whole is deliciously fierce, ferocious and funny.
NOW PLAYING: Seminar runs Friday to Sunday through November 28 at the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts, 50 Mark West Springs Rd., Santa Rosa; Friday and Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 2pm; $30-$40; 707/546-3600. Dead Accounts runs Friday to Sunday through December 6 at the College of Marin Performing Arts Building, Studio Theater, 835 College Ave., Kentfield; Friday and Saturday at 7:30pm; Sunday at 2pm; $10-$20; 415/485-9385.