Fear and self-loathing in New York

BETC kicks off its eighth season in style

Sean Scrutchins as Martin and John C. Ashton as Leonard
Photo by Michael Ensminger

Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company (BETC) is one of Boulder’s best, bar none. From its first production, Antigone, BETC began raising the bar for Front Range theater. With Seminar, BETC gets its eighth season started with the second lively, sly and often humorous Theresa Rebeck play it has produced.

If you’ve ever been part of a group project that called for each member to provide feedback to the others, you are the target audience of Seminar. If your group project experience had an artistic or otherwise creative focus, you’re in the bull’s-eye. If at any point you found yourself rolling your eyes at the fact that in most such situations useful, brutal honesty is almost always avoided in favor of fruitless, facile compliments, Seminar is a must-see. Honestly, if none of the above applies but you’ve been a victim of the recent natural disaster, a night with the writers of Seminar might be just the respite you need from all the devastation and disquietude.

Yes, the seminar in Seminar is a private affair in which four young, aspiring writers have each forked over thousands of dollars to be critiqued and instructed by formerly famous novelist Leonard (John C. Ashton, late of Breaking Bad). The 10-week course is hosted at the Upper West Side abode of Kate (Devon James). Kate is joined by her old friend and the twitchiest of the group, Martin (Sean Scrutchins), the sexually adventurous Izzy (Mary Kay Riley) and Douglas (Matthew Blood-Smyth) who has already been published thanks, at least in part, to bearing a semi-famous surname.

Leonard, a misanthropic once-was vaguely in the mold of a failed Hunter S. Thompson, espouses experience to his students. He’d ship them all off to Somalia for a year or two if he could to try to shake them from their privileged, upper-middle class (or is it lower-upper class?) ruts. One by one, he reads their stories and offers caustic criticism along with the occasional bit of encouragement.

Kate takes the brunt of his abuse and evolves most as a writer — and a character — because of it. The pretentious yet pusillanimous Douglas seems to have the inside track on fame and fortune, making Leonard’s evaluation of both him and his work that much more surprising. Izzy, the least explored but frequently most engaging character, functions more as a pot-stirrer than an actual participant in the Writing Games. And Martin, the writer so passionate about his craft that he borderline abhors the notion of sharing his work with anyone, faces the biggest challenge of the bunch.

Director Stephen Weitz clearly has fun with Seminar, as he did when directing another Rebeck play, Mauritius, a few seasons ago. His choices related to blocking, lighting, set and pacing keep this one-act moving, centered and energized. Every actor seems to have responded to him and the material. Each has at least one moment in which he or she dominates the stage, which is itself mostly static but still draws the audience in.

With the meatiest role, Ashton is a curmudgeonly joy as Leonard. His bullying and, at times, astonishment feel completely organic and believable. Plus, he knows how to employ a variety of curse words with equal parts effectiveness and relish. When, later in the play, we get to see beneath his surface, he succeeds in showing us Leonard’s interior life without discarding all that we’ve seen of him before. As the other central-most character, Scrutchins’ Martin fares somewhat less well. After many early moments of real humor and humanity, Martin becomes too one-note hysterical for my liking. I would have preferred to have seen more emotional nuance to go along with the biggest dramatic arc of the play.

Seminar is another undeniable win for BETC, and it heralds great things to come for the remainder of Season 8, which includes The Santaland Diaries (this year at the Denver Center), Annapurna, And The Sun Stood Still and This.

Seminar plays through Oct. 20 at the Dairy Center for the Arts. Tickets are $15-$25. For tickets or information, visit www.boulderensembletheatre.org or call 303-444-7328.

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